Even now, after having retired, Prof. Günther Deuschl’s ultimate goal is to cure patients. As an expert in movement disorders, he has contributed to this field substantially during his career. In our interview, he tells us what brought him from studying mathematics to being one of the world’s most renowned neurologists, and why he still continues doing what he loves.
“I loved mathematics! But the human side was lacking.”
Prof. Deuschl did not start with medicine right away but initially studied mathematics. “It was a period of my life that was very important for me”, he says. Gaining insight into a completely different field allowed him to see things from different angles. “I never felt these were two different fields. You need the precision to analyse, and you need the empathy to understand your patients. One aspect goes together with the other.” However, while studying mathematics, he was missing the human side. “There is no better feeling than curing a patient who relies on you. That was the ultimate motivation for my switch to medicine.” After starting his medical degree at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich, Prof. Deuschl soon realised that neurology was the field he wanted to enter. “What makes us humans human? It is what the brain does”, he says. “If there is anything that deserves attention, then it is the brain. It is so unexplored, and there is so much to be discovered. That is why neurology was my main interest from the beginning.” However, from the start, he did not plan to only practise medicine. He was not only interested in helping one patient, but contribute to finding treatments for all patients. He wanted to help finding cures, therapies and evidence that therapies worked.
“Movement disorders were my main interest throughout my career.”
When he started his specialisation, little was known about central neurophysiology. “It was not known how the different centres in the brain are cooperating to give oscillating commands. That is why I started in movement disorders”, he says. When he initiated his training as a neurologist with Albrecht Struppler at the Technical University of Munich, he had just finished his medical studies, being part of a generation of medical students that was “against everything touching the brain”. “The only cure in these days for severe tremors was putting an electrode into the brain and ‘cook’ parts of the brain at high temperatures. When I saw how this cured patients, I was fascinated. It was fantastic”, he remembers. Even though there is still a lot to do today, the prognosis of a patient with Parkinson’s has completely changed from the time Prof. Deuschl started his career. “But still, we have no cure. I and many others are still trying to find one.”
“Going to the US was a wonderful experience that was scientifically very fruitful.”
During his period as a physician and associate professor at the University of Freiburg, Prof. Deuschl spent a year in the USA at the National Institute of Health (NIH) with Mark Hallett. “That was already the time when I was fully into movement disorders”, he shares. He learned the American way of doing research and met many friends and collaborators during this time. “Going abroad made my work much more international and collaborative.” However, he says, “I would not call it an eye-opening experience. In the international research environment, you anyways have a good idea of how things are moving forward.” He went to the USA with his family, including his two sons, aged 6 and 10 at the time. “It was a family experience of a very special kind”, he remembers. Both his sons followed his father in his career, one becoming a cardiologist and the other a neuroradiologist. Neither wanted to follow their father into the field of neurology. “Neurology was a burnt area”, he says jokingly.
“During the last six years the EAN has existed, it has done quite a contribution.”
After his time in Freiburg, Prof. Deuschl moved to Kiel where he became a professor and head of the Department of Neurology at the Christian-Albrechts University. He started a deep brain stimulation (DBS) programme, “which was a major effort in a mid-sized German university that has never heard the word stereotactic surgery”, as he says. He worked in the International Movement Disorder Society and the German Society for Neurology. “For some reason, I became the president of the German Society for Neurology, then the president of the International Movement Disorder Society, and finally they asked me to be the founding president of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN)”, he remembers. During his time as EAN president, his main challenge was to engage and keep people together. “To start this ship flying was a very nice task and a very big challenge at the same time”, Prof. Deuschl says. He believes that since the society’s establishment, it has contributed substantially to the field. He continues to have several responsibilities within the EAN, including being one of their representatives at the EU in Brussels.
“The world is not a world of competitors, it is a world of collaborators.”
Prof. Deuschl values the input of young researchers in the EAN, and generally in the academic world. “We need to have young people engaged in our society, they are the ones who have to convince us to change”, he comments. “Also, in the academic world, this is one of the most beautiful things. That young people have a say in where we are going and that people like me have a chance to collaborate with them.” As general career advice, he says it is important for young doctors to understand their talents and interests. “You have to understand what you are good in and which problems you want to solve”, he says. He adds that he never planned to become a professor, nor a president – “I got there because I was interested in a topic.” He believes that collaboration is very important and that it is what makes the work fun. “Once you start working on the topic of your interest, you find people with similar interests. It is fun to work together, to meet aims and get things done one after the other“, he says. However, he also mentions that “good science is something that you have to work a lot for. And you have to enjoy that.”
“When I retired, I thought about starting to grow roses in the garden. But that’s not what I am good in. So, I continued with what I did before.”
Though Prof. Deuschl officially retired in 2016, he still continues his research. He says it has become more difficult for him to stay up to date with the science since then. “This is also a little bit due to the COVID-19 crisis”, he states. “Before the crisis I was out for about half of the year, visiting congresses and research institutes all over the world. Like this, there were many ways to stay on top of it.” He still believes that the establishment of virtual congresses is crucial during these times – “It keeps the community together.” Prof. Deuschl mostly reads journals related to Movement Disorders, among them Movement Disorders, the journal he has been the editor of for several years. “It is too much to follow everything in the field of neurology in my situation. But I still try to stay up-to-date in my field of special interest.” He still continues to be the head of a research group at the University in Kiel, but with fewer responsibilities, especially when it comes to patients. “I see some, but mainly research patients. Sometimes the department asks me to contribute to critical cases. Other than that, I only do research – and I love it”, he concludes.
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