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Meet Gloria Villalba, the neurosurgeon with over 5,000 brain operations

The Spanish doctor is a pioneer in modern psychosurgery and neuromodulation techniques

Neurosurgeon Gloria Villalba
Neurosurgeon Gloria Villalba has performed over 5,000 brain surgeries in her careerVicens Giménez
Jessica Mouzo

Dr. Gloria Villalba, a neurosurgeon at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, had a rough night. Although the fatigue doesn’t show much on her calm face or in her animated speech, a complex operation the day before had produced some unexpectedly poor results. She’s still reflecting on what might have gone awry, if anything. “He was an elderly man with a malignant tumor in a tricky spot in the brain. The surgery went great — we managed to get rid of almost the whole tumor, but then when we were closing up, the neurophysiologist said the patient had lost movement on his left side. We were baffled. Complications can happen, we all know that, but when it happens to someone you’re treating, it’s tough. You can’t help but wonder if you missed something, replaying it all in your head... But everything was done right. Just bad luck. Still, I can’t help but blame myself,” said the 48-year-old doctor from Barcelona with over 5,000 brain surgeries under her belt.

Gloria Villalba.
Gloria Villalba.Vicens Giménez

Villalba treats diseased brains and corrects malfunctioning neural circuits with precision. Saving lives daily, she maintains a strong and disciplined approach, pushing herself and others to excel in her profession. “I wasn’t always like this. They shaped me to survive in a tough world. If you don’t have that grit, they’ll eat you alive,” said the neurosurgeon who has become an innovative leader in neuromodulation to treat mental disorders.

Daughter of migrants from Andalusia (southern Spain), Villalba was the first in her family to attend university. She instantly fell in love with neurosurgery, a field dominated by men with big egos. “A woman who aims to become a neurosurgeon will have a tough time. You’ve got to be super passionate about it. There’s this hidden machismo in the field — they’re constantly sizing you up. So be sure to make no mistakes, and think twice about makeup and heels. You have to prove yourself over and over again.”

Villalba pours her whole life into her work, and decided early on not to marry or have children. She’s the first at the hospital and the last to leave. Villalba routinely reschedules vacations or puts them on hold to attend to patients. She hasn’t turned off her phone in three years. “I’m obsessed with my work — I can’t disconnect, you know? And I oddly enjoy being on call. Am I nuts? Who knows. It’s super intense, but it keeps you grounded. It’s tough when you have to break the news to a family about a death from a car crash. But it’s real life — we shouldn’t forget that.”

Forged in a hospital nestled between the sands of the Mediterranean and the Barceloneta neighborhood, she is no stranger to intense experiences. Specializing in neuro-oncology, she tackles malignant tumors and life-threatening aneurysms that could lead to severe brain hemorrhages if left untreated. She enjoys challenges, especially in neuromodulation. This includes procedures like deep brain stimulation, using implanted electrodes to modulate brain activity and treat neurological and psychiatric disorders. “As a neurosurgeon, there’s nothing more exciting to me than operating on a neural circuit that’s causing a disease.”

Gloria Villalba operates on a patient with a malignant brain tumor.
Gloria Villalba operates on a patient with a malignant brain tumor.Vicens Giménez

Villalba seeks solutions for patients without other treatment options. She’s among the few neurosurgeons in the world who use deep brain stimulation for severe anorexia. A trial at her hospital with eight patients showed this technique improved depression, obsession and anxiety symptoms in half of them. “My greatest fulfillment comes from helping people with no other options,” she said. An expert in pain surgery, she is testing a brain modulation technique to help patients with neuropathic pain that have not responded to other treatments. By targeting a specific brain region, she reduces the pain’s intensity, making it more manageable.

Her mind never stops working. She’s delving into a pioneering trial on deep brain stimulation for cocaine addiction and developing ways to apply neuromodulation for coma patients. “We’re trying to see whether operating on a brain region linked to consciousness will enable coma patients to communicate with family. That would be amazing.”

Villalba reaches for the sky and then returns to Earth every time she goes into an operating room. Every patient leaves a mark on her, and she shares in their suffering. The most challenging aspect of her profession, she reflects, is delivering heartbreaking news and feeling powerless to change the outcome. Villalba identifies as agnostic — having witnessed countless tragedies, her faith is anchored solely in science. “Living is easier when you believe in something that gives you hope. But with all the hardship I see, it’s tough to imagine there’s something out there that can really help us.”

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