Columbia University Medical Center

Medicine and Science in the Spotlight at the 2015 Oscars

Learn more about the science of ALS, Alzheimer's, and Turing's code-breaking

Credit: NASA, JoJo Whilden, Michael Shadlen

Credit: NASA, JoJo Whilden, Michael Shadlen

Three of the most successful movies at this year’s Oscars featured strong medicine and science narratives. The top awards were given to actors for portraying characters fighting chronic diseases in the films “The Theory of Everything” and “Still Alice,” while the Oscar for best adapted screenplay went to “The Imitation Game,” a story based on British scientist Alan Turing.

ALS in “The Theory of Everything”

Eddie Redmayne won best actor for his role as Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Hawking is famous for his research on black holes and the Big Bang. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as a 21-year-old PhD student, and although he was originally given only four years to survive, Hawking has been able to live with the condition into his seventies. Redmayne dedicated his award “to all those struggling with ALS.”

Hiroshi Mitsumoto, MD, director of Columbia’s Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Research Center, explains what ALS is and why Hawking’s case is unusual:

In the latest ALS research at Columbia, researchers have identified a new gene that is associated with the disease. The investigation is the largest genetic study on ALS to date. Read more here.

Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice”

The best actress award went to Julianne Moore for her lead role in “Still Alice.” In the film she plays a fictional Columbia linguistics professor, Alice Howland, who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many scenes from the movie were shot on Columbia’s campus, and in the film, Alice receives medical care from CUMC. “Still Alice” highlights how Alzheimer’s can be incredibly isolating, and in her acceptance speech Moore highlighted this aspect of the condition, saying that “people with Alzheimer’s disease deserve to be seen.”

Richard Mayeux, MD, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, explains the basics and dispels common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease:

Scott Small, MD, director of Columbia’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, also participated in a Q&A on Alzheimer’s and his latest research on aging, which can be read here.

Turing’s code breaking in “The Imitation Game”

The Oscar for best adapted screenplay went to “The Imitation Game,” a film about British mathematician Alan Turing, who devised a statistical technique to crack the Enigma code during World War II. Turing is considered to be one of the forefathers of modern computer science and artificial intelligence.

The video below, from Columbia neuroscientist Michael Shadlen, MD, PhD, demonstrates how Turing’s code-breaking method works (full details here).

Dr. Shadlen’s latest research suggests that neurons in the brain use a similar trick for everyday decision-making. Read more about the study here.