a16z Podcast

The Story of Schizophrenia

Robert Kolker, Stefan McDonough, and Hanne Winarsky

Posted April 7, 2020

Descriptions of the mental illness we today call schizophrenia are as old as humankind itself. And more than likely, we are are all familiar with this disease in some way, as it touches 1% of us—millions of lives—and of course, their families. In this episode, we dive into the remarkable story of one such American family, the Galvins: Mimi, Don, and their 12 children, 6 of whom were afflicted with schizophrenia.

In his new book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker follows the family from the 1950s to today, through, he writes, “the eras of institutionalization and shock therapy, the debates between psycho-therapy versus medication, the needle-in-a-haystack search for genetic markers for the disease, and the profound disagreements about the cause and origin of the illness itself.” Because of that, this is really more than just a portrait of one family; it’s a portrait of how we have struggled over the last decades to understand this mysterious and devastating mental illness: the biology of it, the drivers, the behaviors and pathology, the genomics, and of course the search for treatments that might help, from lobotomies to ECT to thorazine.

Also joining Robert Kolker and a16z’s Hanne Tidnam in this conversation is Stefan McDonough, Executive Director of Genetics at Pfizer World R&D, one of the genetic researchers who worked closely with the Galvins. The conversation follows the key moments where our understanding of this disease began to shift, especially with new technologies and the advent of the Human Genome Project—and finally where we are today, and where our next big break might come from.