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Dr. Jon Lieff: “Try to help whenever possible”

My new book, the Secret Language of Cells, describes a view of biology, where all action is based upon back and forth elaborate conversations between cells. Local decisions in our bodily organs are not made locally but with widespread inputs from all parts of the body including brain cells, immune cells, blood cells, and even […]

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My new book, the Secret Language of Cells, describes a view of biology, where all action is based upon back and forth elaborate conversations between cells. Local decisions in our bodily organs are not made locally but with widespread inputs from all parts of the body including brain cells, immune cells, blood cells, and even microbes. This allows a new paradigm for health and disease, where we search for the many varied signals as avenues for new types of treatments.

Also, it gives a new meaning to the definition of life, itself. Life cannot just be defined as cells that have metabolism and reproduction but rather organisms that have intelligent elaborate conversations. From a basic science viewpoint this would mean life is based on information transfer.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Lieff, MD. He brings to bear 40 years as a nationally recognized neuro-psychiatrist, during which he was president of a national medical subspecialty organization, founded a major scientific journal, and was the medical director for 25 years of a large network of psychiatric care for the elderly. He was a pioneer in several medical fields — geriatric psychiatry, brain injury, computer applications in psychiatry, and the integration of medicine, psychiatry, and neurology.

Starting with an interest in brain cell communication, Dr. Lieff found similar signaling among all cells in nature. Five years ago, he established his acclaimed and popular scientific website, Searching for the Mind, about the topic of cellular communication. With weekly posts, he reviewed and synthesized the latest scientific literature in neuroscience and cell biology.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When just starting out in my career treating elderly people in housing projects with a new federal grant for innovative therapies, the just hired new administrator of the large public health hospital unexpectedly called me. We didn’t know each other. He had heard that I was innovative and wanted me to become the Chief of Psychiatry at this large hospital and to create new programs. Over the next several years we started an alternative pain clinic that only treated elderly patients who had resistant pain unable to be helped by any treatments. This program used a large number of different modalities at the same time such as group therapy, individual therapy, relaxation, massage, dancing, yoga, acupuncture, diet, meditation as well as conventional medications and physical therapies. We were, also, able to enlist an army of graduate students to treat a large number of forgotten poor patients with mental illness and a large number were helped. The pain clinic was so successful that BBC did a special program on it. The other therapy programs, largely using volunteer and graduate school trainees, were very effective for severely ill, mostly poor elderly and on Christmas Eve an editorial appeared in the Boston Globe describing the program as a great blessing.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Try to help whenever possible. Try never to hurt anyone. Search for the scientific truth.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

My new book, the Secret Language of Cells, describes a view of biology, where all action is based upon back and forth elaborate conversations between cells. Local decisions in our bodily organs are not made locally but with widespread inputs from all parts of the body including brain cells, immune cells, blood cells, and even microbes. This allows a new paradigm for health and disease, where we search for the many varied signals as avenues for new types of treatments.

Also, it gives a new meaning to the definition of life, itself. Life cannot just be defined as cells that have metabolism and reproduction but rather organisms that have intelligent elaborate conversations. From a basic science viewpoint this would mean life is based on information transfer.

How do you think this will change the world?

I believe by looking in the right places, many new types of medical treatments will be able to be developed and a new definition of life will be found.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Conversations go both ways. Viruses and Cancer have elaborate conversations. But, by learning the language new treatments can be devised.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

My blog was started in 2011 called Searching for the Mind. I was trying to decipher what mind was in nature by looking at peer reviewed science articles from the best journals. Each week, I would write a detailed review of the literature in the fields of neuroscience, microbiology, immunology, molecular biology, and animal science. I was basically translating impossible to understand chemical jargon into English for those interested in biological science. Finding more and more intelligence in small brains, even in insects, led me to microbes and cells. I found that just like neurons in the brain circuits, literally all cells were talking to each other. The more I wrote about different cells the more I realized that everything in biology is based on these conversations. I did not see any books on this topic, so I realized it was time to write my book.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

People need to read my book, the Secret Language of Cells.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

There were so many surprising discoveries that I couldn’t have possibly known

· Capillary cells directing stem cells as to what cells an organ needs including deciding in the brain whether to make neurons, astrocytes, or microglia

· Platelets not just a plug (and without even a nucleus) are first responders to fight microbes, call for appropriate immune cell help, and help direct attack on infections

· Signals among brain cells rapidly change the patterns of myelin on neuron axons, so that speeds from all over the brain can be coordinated to arrive at the same moment

· Immune T cells tell brain cells to slow down and produce the “sick feeling” when we are ill and need to rest

· Cancer cells behave as individuals and then as a group, as microbes do, signaling back and forth for defense against medications and attacks from T cells

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Perseverance is everything.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The more we can study these cellular conversations, the more avenues of medical treatments will be found. Set up an institute for us to catalogue all cellular conversations.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website and Blog are Searching for the Mind or jonlieffmd.com

Twitter is @jonlieffmd

Facebook is Searching for the mind

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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