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The Accuracy of the Film Awakenings

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Accuracy of The Film Awakenings

Andrew Clapper

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Normally, films that are based upon actual events take a great deal of liberty in changing the details of the events that they depict.  Awakenings appears to be an exception to this trend.  Although the names of people involved are changed, and the methodology of treatment for a disease is different, the movie seems to depict a particular disease and the drug used to treat it very accurately.  The film is based upon the book with the same name, which was written by Dr. Oliver Sacks.  Dr. Sacks recommended that his name be changed, and so we follow a fictional Dr. Sayer through the summer of 1969 in the Bronx, New York.  Dr. Sayer uses a new drug to try to treat some patients that appear to be catatonic, and for a time he is successful.  However, patients who are treated with the drug develop a tolerance for it, and soon his patients return to their former state.  The movie appears to give the audience a close approximation of the symptoms of the disease, as well as the side affects of the drug that was used to treat it. 

The film Awakenings begins with a depiction of one of the main characters as a child.  The child is named Leonard Lowe, and he becomes one of many victims of an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica that spread worldwide from 1917 to 1928.  As his sickness progresses, he is no longer able to spend time with his friends, for fear of spreading the disease and perhaps to prevent him from being helpless should he have an attack.  The film then skips forward to 1969, where we see a Dr. Sayer apply for a job at a hospital in the Bronx.  Although Dr. Sayer's experience is all in research with non human subjects, the hospital is understaffed and hires him.  Dr. Sayer is determined to investigate ways to improve the quality of life for his patients, despite the skepticism of his peers.  Also, instead of conducting business in a routine manner as the other doctors at the hospital seem to do, Sayer dedicates himself to investigation and testing.  His investigation of multiple patients with catatonic conditions leads to the discovery that many of the patients with catatonic behavior suffered from encephalitis lethargica at some point in the past.  To learn more about them, Sayer consults another doctor that treated many victims of the encephalitis lethargica.  Many of the patients that survived the outbreak seemed to recover for a time, but after a number of years they gradually became catatonic.  A short time later, the fact that the catatonic behavior of the encephalitis patients is similar to that of Parkinson's patients, so he investigates the latest advances in Parkinson's treatments.  At a conference on Parkinson's treatments, Sayer first learns about Levodopa (L Dopa).  Sayer proposes that L Dopa be tried as a treatment for one of his catatonic patients, although his superiors doubt he will be successful.  He selects Leonard Lowe for the first series of L Dopa treatments.  After a time, Leonard awakens from his catatonic state and his mother sees him fully conscious for the first time since he was a child.  Sayer then lobbies the patrons of the hospital for additional funding to expand the L Dopa treatments to the rest of the encephalitic patients, and when they see film footage of Leonard before and after his treatments, they enthusiastically begin writing checks.  Virtually all of the patients experience what appears to be a full recovery, and for a time they are able to lead the normal life that is often taken for granted.  Unfortunately, it is not long before Leonard begins to experience side effects of L Dopa administration.  He begins to experience convulsions, paranoia, and psychotic behavior.  His body also begins to build a tolerance for it, so that his Parkinsonian symptoms begin to return.  Although Dr. Sayer vows not to give up, Leonard eventually returns to his previous catatonic state.  After a time, the rest of Sayer's patients experience the same course of events.  The film ends with a speech given by Sayer, who reflects on the lessons that his patients taught him over the course of the previous summer. 

            In order to understand whether the film Awakenings is accurate, it is important to convey basic information about encephalitis lethargica.  From 1917 to 1928, encephalitis lethargica was epidemic worldwide.  It is estimated that over five million people died from causes related to the disease.  The leading theory on the cause of encephalitis lethargica is that the disease results from a strong immune system reaction to an infection by bacterium related to streptococcus.  Researchers have found that antibodies have bound themselves to neurons in the basal ganglia and midbrain in encephalitis lethargica (EL) patients.  The symptoms of EL often begin with a high fever, headache, and sore throat.  Other symptoms follow, including tremors, muscle pains, a slowing of physical and mental response, and drowsiness.  At times, a person infected with EL may see behavioral and personality changes, and sometimes they can become psychotic.  Unfortunately, there is little to be done in the way of treatment for those suffering form encephalitis besides attempting to stabilize the patient.  The patient is kept hydrated with intravenous fluids and watched carefully for signs of brain swelling.  If needed, they are treated with anticonvulsants to control seizures.  If the disease becomes progressive, brain damage similar to that caused by Parkinson's disease can occur.  Because of Dr. Oliver Sacks' work, L Dopa is considered a possible treatment for those with progressive EL, but unfortunately the periods of improved quality of life are always short lived. 

            An understanding of the drug L Dopa is also important to ascertaining the accuracy of Awakenings.  In the 1950s, Arvid Carlsson showed that L Dopa reduced Parkinsonian symptoms in animals.  Parkinson's patients tend to show degeneration of the substantia nigra.  Normally, dopamine is released from most neurons in the substantia nigra, but Parkinson's patients have little dopamine present there.  L Dopa, which can be metabolized into dopamine, is able to be administered as a drug because it is able to cross the blood brain barrier.  Dopamine, however, can not do so.  It follows that L Dopa helps return the dopamine levels in the substantia nigra to normal levels, and thus help the brain achieve a more normal state of functioning (Pinel, 2007).  Unfortunately, the human body develops a tolerance of L Dopa, making its effectiveness temporary.  Also, L Dopa has been associated with a number of side effects.  Some side effects that correspond with events in Awakenings include confusion, extreme emotional states, excessive libido, fragmented sleep, working memory improvement, and a condition similar to amphetamine psychosis.

            Awakenings appears to be extremely accurate as far as EL and L Dopa are concerned.  The actors that portray EL patients with progressive states of the disease do an excellent job of simulating what is similar to catatonic behavior.  In particular, Robert DeNiro as Leonard Lowe seems to portray the progression from awakening to L Dopa side effects to return to the progressive EL state well.  When he is first given L Dopa in the film, he shows a gradual increase in physical and cognitive ability to what appears to be a normal state.  Later, his behavior is consistent with the side affects associated with L Dopa.  He shows an extreme emotional state and fragmented sleep when he calls Dr. Sayer in the middle of the night and tells him that they need to tell people not to take life for granted.  Also, the film shows what may be excessive libido when Leonard shows great interest in the women he sees when he visits the city with Sayer.  Leonard also has what appears to be a psychotic break, and he becomes paranoid and asks other patients at the hospital to protect him.  Psychotic breaks similar to those caused by amphetamines are another known side affect of L Dopa. 

            Besides the fact that cars, a bus, and a jet appear in the film that were not yet being used in 1969, there exist a few more inaccuracies.  Rather than starting L Dopa treatment with one patient and then expanding to all of the EL patients as depicted in the film, Oliver Sacks actually began his study as a double blind procedure with a placebo group and a treatment group.  He also originally intended to conduct the study for 90 days.  Once he saw that fifty percent of his patients were showing improvement, Sacks went ahead and began giving all of the patients L Dopa and dropped the 90 day limit on the study.  Sacks' decision to do so is a good example a particular bioethics issue.  At times, experimental drugs do not appear to be effective or cost efficient enough to continue to be used under normal circumstances, but doctors will continue to prescribe them in order to maximize the quality of life for their patients.  Instead of going from half of the patients in a double blind study to all of them, the film depicts Dr. Sayer going from one patient to all of his patients.  This difference in methodology appears to be the only major difference between the events and depictions in the film and the events that the book and film are based upon (Sacks, 1983). 

            Awakenings is close resemblance of the actual events that took place in a Bronx hospital during the summer of 1969.  A doctor there did treat a group of EL patients with L Dopa, with astonishing but short lived success.  The actors in the movie simulated EL and L Dopa side effects well.  Robin Williams did a good job imitating the personality and mannerisms of Oliver Sacks as the renamed Dr. Sayer.  Even though Dr. Sayer uses methodology different than what was originally used by Sacks, overall the film does serve as an effective educational tool for EL and L Dopa.  The praise and award nominations it received are well deserved.   

 

 

References

Lasker, L. & Marshall, P.  (1990). Awakenings.  United States of America: Columbia Tristar Home Video. 

 Pinel, J. (2007).  Basics of Biopsychology.  Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA, 444 - 477. 

Sacks, O. (1983). The origin of “Awakenings.” British Medical Journal, 287, 1968–1969.

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