Arshya Vahabzadeh: Innovating at the Intersection of Brain, Behavior, and Technology

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Arshya Vahabzadeh.

Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D, is the Chief Medical Officer at Brain Power, a federally and Congressionally supported neurotechnology company that is building transformative technologies for the treatment of autism community. Dr. Vahanzadeh is a leader in developing new technologies and scientific approaches to reduce human suffering and to improve mental health and wellbeing.

Dr. Vahabzadeh is on the staff of the Massachusetts General Hospital and has served as faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and at Exponential Medicine. He is triple trained in pediatric psychiatry, psychiatry, and family medicine, and has over 20 national and international awards in research, innovation, education, and medical leadership. He was the youngest council chairman at the American Psychiatric Association, and was described as one of ten outstanding physicians who represent the future of psychiatry by the American College of Psychiatrists.

Dr. Vahabzadeh is a regular national and international speaker on technology and mental health, and has given talks at Google, Stanford, Harvard, Health 2.0, the Digital Health Summit, and at Singularity University. He has been honored as a “40 under 40” healthcare innovator by MedTechBoston, and was one of only ten people globally to win the Khan Academy/American Association of Medical Colleges/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation MCAT Video competition.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in Tehran, Iran, and spent much of my childhood growing up in England where I also attended medical school. I moved to the United States in 2010 to continue my medical training.

As a child I had a number of formative experiences. I remember watching Iraqi aircraft bombing Tehran as I peered out of the window during one of the regular blackouts. I also remember arriving at one of our country homes in Iran and seeing that it had been bombarded.

After moving to England, where my parents had previously undertaken their university studies, I was hit and near-fatally injured by a car outside of my home. I spent months hospitalized in a children’s hospital and was essentially rebuilt.

Being an immigrant to England, and subsequently the United States, I have a first-hand insight into the arduous challenges that migrants face. I also have a deep appreciation for all of the individuals that have invested in me in both countries, and my hope is that my efforts to create healthcare and educational technologies will help to pay back some of that investment.

My parents provided me with not only a nurturing environment, but also a sense of resiliency to the turmoil that may have surrounded me at any moment. They promoted the importance of education, protecting the vulnerable, and receiving encouragement from the successes of others. I had the opportunity to see both immense poverty and wealth, as well as the humanity and struggles that faced people across society.

My professional life has included going to medical school in England and completing three residency programs over 11 years of postgraduate training, including family medicine under the Royal College of General Practitioners, adult psychiatry at Emory University, and child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. After completion of my training, I became a faculty member in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Academy, headed by one of my mentors Dr. David Rubin. I have also spent a considerable amount of time working on emerging technologies, mostly through my work as the Chief Medical Officer at Brain Power, a neurotechnology company founded by one of my friends from Harvard and MIT, Dr. Ned Sahin. Since completing my training, I have continued to see patients with severe mental health challenges on the frontlines of healthcare, including in emergency departments and in maximum-security correctional facilities.

You received a number of awards and honors for your research, mentorship and teaching. What were the significant accomplishments that led to these?

Over the last decade I have been honored with over two dozen different national and international awards as well as scholarships for innovations in medicine, medical leadership, research, and a host of other innovation related projects. I should say, however,that the most important part of any of these achievements is the opportunity that comes with them. The ability to build networks with like-minded people who are willing to improve healthcare, education, and the future of humanity has been both empowering and humbling.

I have long been involved in many different areas of medical and neuroscientific research, publishing articles, papers, and book chapters in neurobiology and clinical neuroscience on topics such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, neuromodulation, and digital mental health. I have presented at numerous institutions on my research and perspectives on mental health and transformative technologies,

Among my awards, I have been fortunate to have received the American College of Psychiatrists Laughlin Fellowship, the American Medical Association Foundation Excellence in Medicine Leadership Award, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Leadership Fellowship. I was lucky to have been federally supported through a NIMH/AADPRT BRAIN Scholarship, and a SAMSHA/APA grant focusing on autism.

I am very honored and always humbled by the awards I have received. I believe part of the reason for the recognition is a willingness I find within myself to go the extra mile in my academic work and to advocate publicly for mental health awareness wherever and whenever I can. The importance of doing good work and providing a voice for those who need it is something that I believe is an important part of my role as a physician with a public profile.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I would like to say that I have consistently worked hard, averaging around 100 hours a week, and I have always tried to maximize the opportunities that I have been given. However, I have also realized the importance of having a powerful network, and indeed I often believe that having an empowered network of individuals behind you is as important as working hard or being naturally gifted. I also think that there is a lot to be said of never expecting others to treat you the way you treat them. I am also a huge fan of reducing the “noise” around myself. There are so many devices and social media platforms designed to distract you and pull your focus away from what you need to be doing. Eliminating or consciously reducing your engagement time with these distractions is crucial to your focus and ultimate success. Reducing the “noise” also means not allowing yourself to become too wrapped up in what other people are doing or claim to be doing.

I am a strong believer in achieving mind-body balance, and maintaining a balanced diet. I usually work out 7 days a week to improve physical coordination, strength, and endurance. On some days I may face a 16-hour clinical day, several hours of data analysis and academic work, and a social function, and I believe that having the right level of physical conditioning has been very helpful in these situations.

I am not a huge fan of idolizing people in the way that is often seen in the media, but I am inspired by those around me all the time. I am particularly fond of people who achieve personal success while making the world a better place, those who are relentless in pursuing their dreams, and people who put their ambitions on hold in order to care for their family members. Inspiration can be found in the most unexpected of places, and as a psychiatrist I hear about these stories all the time. A younger mother who was working at a fast-food restaurant recently impacted me, as I learned she was essentially living out of her car in the parking lot, and used the money saved to ensure that her children went to school. Her grit, resiliency, and steadfast approach to doing what was necessary were absolutely inspirational to me.

Your fields of interest cover using transformative technology to improve the lives of people with special needs and mental health conditions. Can you share some highlights of your work in these areas?

As I look around the world today, I see humans creating tremendous progress and opportunities in certain communities, while despair and isolation are rife in many others. Often these communities overlap in time and space; living and dying can exist just footsteps away from one another.

My fundamental belief is that we can use our knowledge of science and technology to improve the well-being of our fellow humans. We can produce technologies that can help us empower people through education, heal them in ill health, and allow them to reach their full potential. While technology advances at a rapid pace, we must also understand that the human experience involves giving other people your time and understanding them in the context of their relationships, communities, and social world. This is a task that is easier to articulate than to achieve in person!

While I hold certain lofty ideals, I am also very much a realist, as I have and will always continue to work with the most disadvantaged communities. As a frontline clinician, I have seen how immense healthcare needs in this country are, and just how critical it is to recognize and address the social determinants of health. I have witnessed how some of our greatest mental health challenges do not get the level of funding and support that they need, and how we still have huge gaps between scientific research and the practical real-world impacts of scientific advances.

I believe that technology has a crucial role to play in helping us throughout our daily lives, such as aiding those who have the biggest mental health challenges and promoting mental wellness in many others. I believe that understanding human mental health through the use of technology is extremely challenging — perhaps much more than people realize. We are trying to gain insights into a person’s mood state, cognitive functioning, and social thinking through the use of wearables, apps on smartphones, and “smart glasses,” but there is still quite a considerable way to go. Research in digital mental health continues to be quite fragmented, is often not reproducible, and rarely do results translate into a product that can positively impact people’s lives. One of my hardest tasks has been to create an actual device that would be helpful to people, and I think this goal continues to stump many overambitious entrepreneurs and can be intimidating to academics.

This is why I find my work at Brain Power very exciting. We are currently combining cutting edge augmented reality, artificial intelligence, social neuroscience, and digital tools to help the autism community succeed in education, health, and work. We have recently published the first scientific paper on the use social communication smart glasses in autism. We have also been fortunate to partner with a number of leading organizations like Google and Affectiva, and have both federal and congressional funding to build these next-generation technologies. The feedback that we have received from the community and experts has been very humbling, and we have been lucky enough to receive a wide range of scientific and autism-related awards for our work. We also run a number of internship training programs for students from local high schools, autism vocational training programs, and universities. Part of our mission is to not only create accessible technologies, but also help teach the next generation of innovators from across the breadth of society.

Can you tell us about your advocating for innovations in healthcare to reduce death and disability from brain disorders on a global scale?

We face a number of problems when we think about global mental health and the burden of brain disorders. Firstly, these conditions are the biggest cause of disability in the world, and they predominantly disable people in their youth. Secondly, our resources for tackling these problems are very limited. We simply do not have enough human experts to be able to provide the mental health care that is needed. We are going to have to rely more on technology to deliver scalable solutions to these challenges. My approach for tackling these issues partly comes through my work with Brain Power, but I am also involved in innovative brain health projects at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Exponential Medicine, Neurolaunch, and the American Psychiatric Association.

I am also passionate about working with organizations that are creating real-world impacts for the people who need it most. I am proud to be a part of two children’s charities. The Special Needs Network was founded by my friend Areva Martin ESQ, and focuses on helping children with special needs in Los Angeles, while Art of Hope was founded by one of my fellow Iranian-Americans, Tara Kangarlou, and provides art therapy to child refugees in Syria and the surrounding areas.

In your view, what is the biggest challenge with which your field is currently grappling?

Mental health has long been underserved by science, healthcare, and education. Because of stigma and ignorance, millions of people are suffering from psychiatric conditions that are unrecognized, untreated, disabling, and all too often, deadly. I recognize that stigma has had a significant role to play in this situation. However, understanding mental health requires challenging some of the most basic assumptions in the field. Many of the conditions that we diagnose and treat are based on behavioral symptoms, with the underlying scientific cause less clear. Future efforts that harness digital assessment, biological tests, and use large data-sets may help us to redefine these conditions, subtype them, and find more scalable and accessible means for people to lead healthier lives. I have already published and written about some of the most cutting edge areas such as digital suicide prevention, machine learning in depression, and the use of wearable technology for mental health.

Future challenges will involve access to care as the population increases and ages, along with changes to healthcare provision. In order to successfully overcome these challenges, I believe that the medical profession as a whole, but especially psychiatry, needs to embrace the potential of technologies such as telemedicine, virtual/augmented reality, and other forms of digital health to help to increase access, and ideally improve the quality of care that we deliver. That engagement needs to start today, it needs to be taken very seriously, and should be given far more attention than it is currently being given by the medical community.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

The United States, with the exception of the Native Americans, is a nation of immigrants. It is a fact that the Iranian-American community has been described as being one of the most successful immigrant groups. I have found the Iranian-American community to be very warm and welcoming, and believe that the community shows incredible pride in both their Persian heritage and American identity. However, we should be mindful that the community also faces many challenges. Iranian-Americans continue to face racism, largely fueled by individuals with little appreciation of the current geopolitical situation, and a lackluster grasp of the history of human civilization. Secondly, being an immensely proud community has caused us to have blind spots; shame and honor impede our ability to tackle issues such as mental health, poverty, gender identity, and drug addiction. I have been inspired by the mentorship and education that I have received from Iranian-American organizations such as PAAIA, and have been particularly impressed with the work of outstanding Iranian Americans including Dr. FirouzNaderi (Former Director at NASA), and Bita Darybari(Pars Equality Center).

I believe that the Iranian-American community embraces many of the values that have made America great. It is also profoundly important to me that we support and work to empower other communities. I am committed to advancing equality and opportunity for all, regardless of background.

This piece was initially published on Huffington Post.