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Board Spotlight on Steve Gilbert

Monday January 28, 2019

 

Steve Gilbert is a neurotoxicologist and the newest member of NW Parkinson's Board of Directors. His work has been steeped in chemical exposure and neurological disorders for years—way before his Parkinson's diagnosis.

Now, between his time researching, volunteering, and grandparenting, Steve acts as a kind of double agent: expert-patient, teacher-student, scientist-advocate. When we met for our interview, I realized that his experience of life with Parkinson's is incredibly unique (which, of course, is/n't saying something).

Read more to learn about Steve, the brilliance of his generosity—and vise versa—through his commitment to educating people on toxicology. 

 

Bette Jane Camp 

Steve Gilbert 

-

 

I looked you up on the internet—I took a Google. 

You know, I’ve never done that. I’ve never Googled myself. 

 

It’s how I found your book, “A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals”. I was excited to see it’s a free ebook. And it’s published in five languages, right? 

Yes: Chinese, German, Spanish, English, and Arabic. I’m hoping to do a third edition of it this year. 

  

Oh wow. Are you working on that right now? 

Yeah, my main goal this year [is] to write a third edition of "A Small Dose of Toxicology" and add a couple chapters, including one on marijuana. 

  

When did you originally decide to write it? 

Well, [it started] when I moved to Seattle from Ottawa Canada in 1990 to work at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Science in the School of Public Health. There I worked on various research projects evaluating the health effects of chemicals like merucury and lead.  

After five years or so I got into the pharmaceutical world, where biotech and drug companies work to develop and sell drugs. Their primary goal is to make money by treating disease. Which is fine. But my real interest is in preventionunfortunately, there is not a lot of money to be made in preventing a diseaseI decided to re-focus my efforts on education and prevention. 

I wanted to make toxicology accessible, to give people the tools to understand the health effects of the everyday chemicals they are exposed to. There are plenty of textbooks out therebig enough to break your toe. But I wanted to make an introductory book.  

After I finished the book “A Small Dose of Toxicology”, I further developed my non-profit, the Institute of Neurotoxicology & Neurological Disorders (INND), and focused more on educational issues.

This meant asking: how do we educate people about the use of chemicals? how do we use all the knowledge we currently have? My thesis is that we have tremendous amounts of knowledge, but we don’t always use it well; we don’t use it make sound health-based decisions that can prevent disease. I further explain this on my website: https://www.asmalldoseoftoxicology.org/. 

 

What is toxicology? 

Toxicology is the study of harmful effects of chemical compounds.  

But you know, I actually use the word 'toxic' in its broadest sense and in terms of 'doseThe response to a chemical can vary by the ‘dose’ and the attributes of the person exposed to that ‘dose’. Say you have a dose of caffeine, or sugar, or lead—an exposure—what is your response to that? How do we think about dose-response?

Dose takes into account our body weight, age, metabolism, and other factorsFor example, a can of soda has about 50 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. To calculate the dose of caffeine from that soda for a 110 pound (50kg) woman, we divide the amount of caffeine (50 mg) by her body weight (50mg/50kg = 1mg/kg). That may not seem like much, but if you weighed 11 pounds (5kg), the dose of caffeine is much higher; in this example, it is 10 times the dose of caffeine to a child as to an adult (50mg/5kg=10mg/kg) from one can of soda

Now this is an extreme example, but serves to explain the point that children can receive a much higher dose, and thereby can be more strongly affected, from the same exposure to a chemical as an adult.   

  

I never do that math when I drink tea [laughs].  

I know, nobody does [laughs]. As a side note: there is generally more caffeine in black tea than coffee, we just do a better job of extracting the caffeine from coffee than tea.  

  

But that’s so cool!  

Yeahthat’s what I cover through different substances in the book. Caffeine, alcohol, lead, mercury, pesticides and more and I put it all in the context of history and ethics 

  

That’s so empowering. Working through our many different exposures can be intimidating. 

It is! But it’s important [to know]. For instance, kids are more susceptible to certain chemicals largely because they eat more, drink more, and breathe more than adults do for their body weight. Even though they might get the same or less exposure, when you figure in body weight, they’re getting a bigger dose.  

That, to me, is what toxicology is all about and what makes it so interesting. Our interaction with the environment and the environment’s interaction with us.  

 

You work in neurotoxicology, specifically, right?  

Yes, in other words: how do chemicals affect the nervous system? 

 

And you’ve been [in neurotoxicology] since before your diagnosis with Parkinson’s. 

Oh yeah, and actually way before that. I think I was diagnosed in 2005, but I’d noticed something was going on a few years before that. I had a tremor in my right leg. 

  

Were you familiar with Parkinson’s when you were diagnosed? 

You know, I knew what it was, how it occurred, where the substantia nigra is in the brain, but not a whole lot about the whole disease. And then I had it. And it is pretty ironic [laughs].  

 

Have you seen humor in [the diagnosis]? 

Oh, the dark kind [laughs]. 

  

I couldn’t believe [the irony] when I first learned about your work. Your board membership with the NW Parkinson’s community means even more—you’re on the inside of the medical world and living with Parkinson’s. You’re an advocate.  

You know, that’s why I agreed to participate in a video about Deep Brain Stimulation [DBS] as a treatment for Parkinson’s. How do you explain these things? 

After I had the surgery to implant wires into my brain and attach them to a battery pack, I had to go back to the neurophysiologist three or four times to modulate the signal strength to the electrodes on the wire leads, and to see which configuration had the most benefits with the least amount of side effects. Plus, the brain had to adjust. It’s very adaptive. 

Eventually, we found the best parameters and my tremor has just about disappeared and my ability to walk has improved dramatically. I have minimal side effects other than some minor problems with speech. So far, I’m not using any drugs. 

 

Do you have any insight or suggestions you'd like to share with people with Parkinson’s? 

Reduce the use of drugs as much as you can because the potential side effects of the drugs can be as challenging as the disease itselfget as much exercise as you can, and look into DBS as early as you can. And, most importantly, enjoy life as best you can. I’ve been very lucky as far as treatment and support from my family.  

Don’t let doctors bully you into taking drugs. Sometimes people are embarrassed by the tremor; that never bothered me. Everyone’s just too polite to talk about it anyway [laughs].  

And—exercise is the only thing proven to slow the progress of the disease. I still ride my bicycle, walk as much as possible, and use a rowing machine. You just need to do what helps your body out.  

 

What does it mean to you to be on the NW Parkinson's Board of Directors? 

Well, it’s usually change. I’ve been on a few boards. And I frequently have my own agenda as well as wanting to help out; I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

But, mostly I want to [connect] people with DBS. There’s a big hole in data, in knowing who has had the surgery, where, when, and what their outcomes have been. When DBS worked really well for me, when I did that video, I realized I wanted to [share that], to be a resource, to support ways to prevent the disease, and to be more involved in the Parkinson's community.  

Check out Toxipedia for so many resources!  

 

Notes: 

 

  • Is There a Link Between Agent Orange & Parkinson’s? 

https://parkinsonsdisease.net/clinical/link-agent-orange-parkinsons/ 

 

  • NIH study finds two pesticides associated with Parkinson’s 

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-finds-two-pesticides-associated-parkinsons-disease 

 

  •  Exercise resources for people with Parkinson's

https://nwpf.org/participate/exercise-movement/

 

  • Video on DBS, featuring Steve Gilbert

https://youtu.be/eH5W1HfZ4F8

 

Bette Jane Camp
NWPF Blogger

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