The movie Awakenings

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Meagan McGee
Psychology 1300

The movie Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro portrays the true story of a doctor named Dr. Malcolm Sayer, and the events of the summer of 1969 at a psychiatric hospital in New York. Dr. Malcolm Sayer, who is a research physician, is confronted with a number of patients who had each been afflicted with a devastating disease called Encephalitis Lethargica. The illness killed most of the people who contracted it, but some were left living statues; speechless, motionless, and helpless. Dr. Malcolm Sayer, when introduced to these patients and their prospective cases, took on what was considered an extremely unpredictable and radical experimental treatment. Being a primarily research physician, Dr. Sayer learns of a new drug called L-DOPA, today used extensively for Parkinson’s patients. Sayer injects an incredible amount of this drug into a patient named Leonard, played by Robert De Niro. When Leonard awakes from his catatonia, literally a 12 year old trapped in a 42 year olds body; Sayer decides to expand the treatment to the remaining of the catatonic post-encephalitic patients in his care. Dr. Malcolm Sayer ended up “waking up” a total of 16 people that summer, all of which, in a heartbreaking twist, slipped back into catatonia a few months after being awakened. This movie clearly has a lot of ties to the field of psychology. The patient’s affliction, Encephalitis Lethargica, appeals to Biological Psychology. Encephalitis is an almost always fatal inflammation of the brain usually caused by some kind of infection, particularly infection of the spinal fluid, called meningitis; however the two are not always present together. This disease can cause psychological symptoms such as confusion, rage, and irritability. In rare cases, and in what was, in the 1930’s, labeled of epidemic proportions, encephalitis can develop into a rare strain called encephalitis lethargica, in which these patients are either killed or left in a state of frozen catatonia. The treatment that is shown in this movie also plays into biological psychology. L-DOPA stimulates dopamine levels in the brain, which more or less regulate central motor function. When first discovered, L-DOPA was said to be ineffective. At the time it was isolated, scientists were more interested in the formation of adrenaline-like substances, and disregarded what the possible advantages of this new drug could be. But by 1965, the role of dopamine in the regulation of central motor function and its reversal of Parkinson's-like conditions was discovered and utilized. This drug was used for Encephalitis Lethargica because initially this disease mimicked symptoms of the neurological disorder Parkinson’s. Before going catatonic, people with encephalitis lethargica would present with tremors and uncontrollable twitches, a slowness of motion called bradykinesia, low blood pressure and rigidity of muscles, particularly muscles in the neck and legs. Of course, at this time, little was ACTUALLY known about how the drug interacts with dopamine in the brain or what it even had the potential to fix. For this reason, L-DOPA was considered a fairly risky experimental treatment. On the other side of psychology, once awoken from their extensive “sleep,” some for up to thirty-five years, patients dealt with an extremely difficult coping process. Having been frozen for an extended period of time, and thrown back into a world that is nothing like they remembered, patients dealt with more emotional setbacks. Patients had to learn that their wife, or their husband, or their son had died while they were catatonic. This presented the abnormal psychology part of their amazing recovery. Patients developed depression, anxiety, and overall uneasiness. Patients had to deal with this new world that was strange and confusing. One of the actual patients that was awoken during that summer was quoted as saying the world was like “a picture whipped out...
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