I recommend mindfulness meditation for everybody as a way of dealing with stress

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At first sight you wouldn’t say that Dr Anna Colzi has been the medical director of Pfizer’s Clinical Research Unit in Brussels for one year and a half. Pfizer is one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Dr Colzi is an elegant and friendly lady, and speaks five languages. When talking with her, you have the feeling you have known her for a long time. She does not come across as the typical severe and cold director. Her attitude changes though when she talks about taking decisions. You immediately notice her determination and ambition in pursuing her professional goals.

You earned your medical degree and PhD title in Italy, followed by a specialization in neurology. Why this field?

For me, neurology requires a specific reasoning for a diagnosis. We have to go through two types of diagnostic processes: diagnosis of site and nature of pathology. This requires a thorough knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, which were really interesting for me from a medical and intellectual point of view. In addition to that, the brain has always fascinated me, particularly the interaction between brain and body.

You wrote a lot of scientific articles on Parkinson’s disease. Where does the interest for this specific neurological disease come from?

I chose neurology because I was fascinated by research, and in this field research is still necessary because there is no cure for this disease and we can't control the symptomatology with the current medication. I wrote my M.D. thesis on pubertal delay. We known that all neurotransmitters are highly involved in puberty, and dopamine is one of the most important of them because it controls gonads. Dopamine is the major system affected in Parkinson’s disease, that is why my interest to study more about this disease.

Could we say that there are methods for preventing the development of neurological diseases, in particular Parkinson’s disease?

I think prevention is difficult in neurology because we don’t know the real causes of many neurological diseases. We have studies, which suggest that exercising your brain (by learning languages, doing puzzles, playing music, studying continuously, etc.) decreases the incidence of Alzheimer disease, for example. Different is how we can influence the impact and evolution of symptoms with attitudes and behaviour in everyday life. For example, some Parkinsonian patients could move very easily when they dance.

During your academic formation you did different internships in Switzerland, United Kingdom, Argentina, just to name a few. How did these multicultural experiences influence your career?

In Switzerland it was a purely scientific experience, a pharmacological preclinical research in the laboratory for Hoffmann La Roche, a pharmaceutical company. In Argentina it was exclusively clinical – I was working in one of the major hospitals in Mar Del Plata. In UK it was a mix of the previous types of work. Intuitively, I’d say that the cultures in Switzerland, Argentina and UK are very different, so I learned how to interact with people from different cultures.

It is known that a doctor prefers mainly clinical work today. You chose from the beginning to work in the pharmaceutical sector – Eli Lilly, UCB and now Pfizer. Why would you advice a doctor to join a pharmaceutical company?

I was extremely curious about research in neurology, and my PhD confirmed how extremely important is to do research in this particular field. It is because there are not many treatments available. Though we have learned a lot in the last twenty years, we are still far from resolving the problems of many neurological patients. When I finished my international internships, it was difficult to find the position I was looking for in Italy, so the first opportunity that I encountered was to join the pharmaceutical company, Lilly. I gained research and clinical experience in drug development. I would recommend this to all physicians who want to go beyond clinical practice and to those who would like to have a broader impact on patients. Every time you participate in developing a drug that comes to market, you, as a physician, really have an impact on the entire population of patients with that disease.

Where is it more efficient to do research, in a small (biotech) or a big pharmaceutical company?

I’ve never worked for a biotech company; the smallest company was UCB, but I would say that there are pro and cons: when you’re in a small company, you’re closer to the decision points. Of course, you have less means, a smaller budget, and indirectly a limited numbers of projects to follow, so maybe you can focus better. On the other side, working in big pharmaceutical companies can impact more patients. There are more diseases you can work on, and bigger companies are better organized in supporting the people who work for them.

You’re very enthusiastic about translational medicine. Where does this enthusiasm come from?

It is a recent field of medicine, maybe 15-20 years old. The role of physicians is to find ways to translate the data from specific animals to humans, which requires a specific rigor, methodology and techniques. Fascinating indeed.

There is a debate about the efficiency of generic drugs versus original ones (especially in older people). What is your opinion?

Generic drugs are not developed with the same accuracy as the original drugs. A generic drug goes through only a few clinical trials; the same quantity has the same active compounds as an original medication, but the composition is different. In reality, it has not been tested if the composition of the drug has the same efficacy as the original. It could be dangerous for certain pathologies – for example, in neurology, if you change from original to generic you sometimes need to adjust the dose. Patients are not always satisfied, so they demand to stay on the original medication because they feel the difference.

As the director of the unit, you probably have special skills to manage your team, people from different cultures and with different backgrounds. Where have you learned these skills and how have you developed them?

Leadership is something that you can certainly learn and develop. Personality is also important; in my case it is the Mediterranean type for whom communication - talking and listening - plays a crucial role. I’ve learned the leadership skills in the pharmaceutical field. My exposure to the academic world and hospitals did not teach me how to organize chair meetings, for example, or how to talk to collaborators in order to motivate them. So I was taught how to make the working environment ideal for everybody, how to allow people to work better. I did these in the first ten years of my career, especially at Lilly, a very good leadership school. I am following similar training now at Pfizer as well.

Your position allows you to have an impact on developing a healthy workplace for your employees. Do you have any plans in this regard?

Thank you for this question because there is in fact a Pfizer initiative- Feel Great@Work, which is already implemented in Belgium, in the commercial department at Pfizer La Plaine. All the staff in the clinical unit will be trained in this program that includes some simple strategies to make your own work and that of your collaborators easier – for example, managing the emails that you received everyday, the ways to talk in open offices, how to respect the habits of your colleagues for working time, so a flexitime. At Pfizer La Plaine there are weekly yoga classes; I would like to implement this here as well, according to available spaces. I was also thinking about mindfulness sessions, a relaxing technique to reduce stress both in the workplace and in your personal life.

It is known that there are techniques for improving cognitive functions in preventing dementia- simple aerobic exercises, such as walking 45 minutes per day, two times per week, improve episodic memory and executive function in older people. Some video games might improve mental agility, or according to a recent Finnish article ( A 2 year multidomain intervention of diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring versus control to prevent cognitive decline in at- risk elderly people-FINGER: a randomised controlled trial http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60461-5/abstract) healthy lifestyle factors are important in preventing dementia in older people. Meditation, mindfulness-based mind fitness training in which participants improve their concentration by focusing on one aspect at a time, such as a particular body sensation, all these influence mental agility and attention, which are qualities associated with higher intelligence. You’ve been practicing meditation for a very long time. How did you discover the world of brain exercises?

I have been practicing yoga for 23 years, since my time in Argentina. I was pregnant with my first son and I wanted to engage in some soft physical activity. Yoga makes you be more self-aware of your body, your energy; it provides techniques for relaxation. When I skip my weekly two sessions of yoga, I feel the difference. Meditation is part of mindfulness yoga. Recently, I have been building a mindfulness meditation practice. I have new responsibilities in my new role as manager of almost one hundred people, and I can feel the pressure associated with that. It is important to find something that helps me distance myself emotionally from all the issues I deal with on a daily basis – people’s issues in all their complexity. I recommend this meditation to everyone who has an important psychological pressure. This type of mindfulness meditation is extremely helpful.

Do you have other healthy lifestyle habits you would recommend?

I have eliminated meat almost entirely from my diet. Now my diet is based on vegetables, cereals, and some cheese that I can’t avoid, probably because I am Italian. I also eat lots of fish as my main protein source.

Why did you choose to come to Brussels?

I had a few possibilities to go to the US, which could have offered me many more career opportunities. I wanted to stay in Europe and raise my children here. Brussels was not exactly my choice; it was my family’s choice. Actually I had to follow my husband here to keep the family together. But I have discovered a very good quality of life in Brussels. It is an international city, not metropolitan, so you don’t have the pressure associated with it, such as it is the case in Paris, London or Berlin. Brussels is an extremely international city, which is a major quality for me. It is also very green due to the forests and many parks everywhere. This makes it easier to isolate yourself from the noise of the city. Of course, the weather is not the ideal one for a Mediterranean person, but maybe there is an advantage to this, as I can meditate more at home (laughing-Ed.).

Thank you for your time.

Interviewed by Dr Ioan Hanes

A recent article in The Washington Post (Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain- http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/) presents an interview with Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, whose work shows that meditating can literally change your brain. Until now we knew that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life. The research found that “ long-term meditators have an increased amount of grey matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. (…) It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced. (…) We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. It’s well- documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older- it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50- year- old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25- year- old. (…). Those who start to meditate have changes in the brain after just eight weeks and (…) a practice of an average of 27 minutes a day at home.”