Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz And The Brain-Gut Connection

Two health-related points struck me in this disturbing but exceedingly smart piece in the current New Yorker about the “darker side” of Aaron Swartz, the gifted young Internet activist who hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment in January. (The “dark” health aspects of the story were so powerful that I called an expert to find out more about the potent connection between disorders of the gut and the brain. See below.)

First, the depth of Swartz’ physical distress and heightened sensitivity to everything from food to music is astounding. Reporter Larissa MacFarquhar writes:

He disliked all vegetables and refused to eat them except in extremely expensive restaurants, such as Thomas Keller restaurants. He had ulcerative colitis, a serious digestive disorder similar to Crohn’s disease; he also thought that he was a “supertaster,” experiencing sensations of taste more intensely than regular people. Partly for these reasons, he ate only foods that were white or yellow. He ate pasta, tofu, cheese, bread, rice, eggs, and cheese pizza. He was phobic about fruit and wouldn’t touch it. He rarely drank alcohol and was careful to stay hydrated. He went through four humidifiers in his apartment in Brooklyn. He said that he left San Francisco because the air-conditioning was bad. He was a supertaster in matters other than food: things always seemed much better or worse to him than they did to other people.

[From Swartz’ own writing]: I recently had to sit through a performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. . . . At first it was simply boring, but as I listened more carefully, it grew increasingly painful, until it became excruciatingly so. I literally began tearing my hair out and trying to cut my skin with my nails (there were large red marks when the performance was finally over). (2006)

The second issue that seemed particularly relevant to the entire tragedy is the severity of Swartz’ ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the colon and rectum, with symptoms that can range from highly uncomfortable to seriously painful. In the piece, MacFarquhar quotes one of Swartz’ friends discussing the link between ulcerative colitis, depression and suicide:

NIH/wikimedia commons

NIH/wikimedia commons

A doctor relative last night told me that he’d had some very painful experiences with patients with ulcerative colitis committing suicide. Apparently co-morbidity with depression is common. I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the last twelve hours. I know during the scare in 2007 he had gotten very, very sick from his U.C. He definitely didn’t seem depressed right before his death, nor for a long time previously. He wasn’t doing normal depressed-people things (like withdrawing from friends and family), let alone suicidal-people things (like giving away his stuff). However, he did commit suicide, which weighs pretty heavily on the other side of the scale. My doctor relative told me that some of his ulcerative-colitis patients seemed to be doing much better until the moment when they suddenly committed suicide, and that there’s some speculation that U.C. can alter liver functioning, which in turn can cause other medicine to cause impulsive behavior like suicide.
Ben Wikler, a friend

I spoke with Suzanne Bender, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the psychiatric liaison to the pediatric gastro-intestinal service at MGH. Every Thursday, Dr. Bender sees children and adolescents with GI problems that have not responded to typical treatments, and have also caused emotional distress. She says many of these patients only get relief from their GI symptoms once coordinated care is provided, between GI and Psychiatry.

“In general, the gut and the brain talk to each other quite a bit,” Continue reading

Swartz On Depression: ‘Unable To Feel The Joy’

I can’t stop thinking about what, exactly, drove 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, the technology whiz kid and free-information crusader facing federal charges for wire and computer fraud, to hang himself last Friday. What was the final straw that broke this brilliant, so-very-promising young man?

His family clearly believed it was government persecution. In a statement they said his suicide “is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

But Swartz’ own writings suggest that he suffered from depression, which could have been a factor as well.  In 2007 he offered this portrait of his distraught state of mind; the deadened outlook and sense of being trapped in a downward spiral:

Depressed mood: Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness. Continue reading