Brian T. Walitt, MD

August 07, 2012

Describe your research interests and how you chose this area of research.

My research interest is perceptual illness. In these disorders, a person experiences a range of different bodily sensations, such as pain and fatigue, without any clear external cause. In some, these sensations can be bothersome while in others they can be disabling. The perceptual illnesses that interest me change their names with every generation, with current disorders being called fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and post-Lyme syndrome. 

My involvement in the field started during my medical training as I saw my first patients with fibromyalgia. The complaints of these patients were very familiar and made me realize how common they are in the general population, even amongst my friends and family. The desire to figure out a way to alleviate this particular type of suffering drew me into the field. As I have become more involved in research over the years, I have become convinced that unraveling the mysteries of perceptual illnesses will also shed light into the mechanisms that enable all people to feel and think and expand our understanding of the human condition.

How does GHUCCTS help you to achieve your research goals and advance your career in clinical and translational research? How will the CTSA program help to advance knowledge and treatments for patients with the diseases you study?

GHUCCTS has been essential in the development of a serious perceptual illness research program. With their assistance, I have established the Fibromyalgia Evaluation and Research Center (FMeRC). FMeRC is a unique research clinic that collects prospective, longitudinal data on patients with perceptual illnesses with the goal to follow them over the course of their lifetimes, while also providing clinical guidance for the participants. GHUCCTS has been instrumental in providing institutional and nursing support that has enabled the clinic to grow substantially over two years without a standing budget. FMeRC serves as a base for all of my research activity, with the participants enrolling in a variety of other epidemiologic, serologic, functional imaging, and interventional studies.

Why is it important to have disciplinary and ethnic/cultural diversity in medical research? How does diversity contribute to your research? How does diversity enhance scientific discovery? (examples from your own career would be particularly useful)

Medical research aims to truthfully describe the causes and remedies of human disease. It is now clear that the nature of all diseases depends in part on subtle variations in human design. Human beings are an amazingly diverse species consequently medical research would lose its value if it does not account for essential human diversity. In my research, I make an effort to be as inclusive as possible to ensure that my studies represent the whole spectrum of perceptual illnesses. By determining what binds a diverse group of patients together, an understanding of the shared illness experience emerges. In contradistinction, studying the differences in illness experiences between patients with the same illness, it becomes possible to understand how individual traits affect disease.

It is not possible to understand a disease using any single research approach. It is necessary to observe the physical qualities of a disease, understand how a disease exists within the community, to determine contributions of the internal and the external environment to a disease, and how all of these factors interact to create disease. My research focuses on perceptual disorders that create symptoms that cannot be seen on examination or directly measured with testing. This makes it essential to bring a diverse range of research techniques to adequately describe the illnesses, including qualitative collection of patient narratives, epidemiological studies of perceptual complaints and outcomes, genetic studies to uncover physiological mechanisms that contribute to illness, and functional imaging studies to characterize potential illness mechanisms.

How does clinical translational research benefit our community, both directly and indirectly? (examples from your own research program would be particularly useful)

Diversity in research provides important benefits to the community at large. Understanding disease in a diverse population enables individuals with an illness to best understand what they can expect. Studies that focus on a narrow population of people selected by gender or race make it difficult to understand what an individual can expect if they are not part of that narrowly defined group. Diversity of research techniques indirectly benefits the community as the future of medical therapy will depend on science's ability to interpret the complex physiological relationships that define human health.