by Carlos Belmonte, M.D., Ph.D.
President, International Brain Research Organization
Neuroscientists old enough to have a perspective on the progress in brain research over the last decades share with me the feeling that we are living a revolution. Revolutions profoundly change people’s lives and often devour their own children, so that seminal discoveries made only a few years ago by prominent scientists are now anonymous and pushed aside by exciting new findings. But researchers must set aside nostalgia to address the now very real possibility of answering fundamental questions about the human brain—questions that seemed inaccessible not long ago.
We are still far from curing many of the major brain pathologies. Scientists and health administrators alike have repeatedly lamented the difficulties involved in translating basic research findings into human therapy, which are a source of frustration for basic and clinical neuroscientists. Yet an understanding of the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying brain diseases is the most secure and rapid way of finding effective therapies for disease prevention and cure.
The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives’ Progress Report on Brain Research acknowledges each year the exciting advances in neuroscience that are bridging the gap between basic research and clinical results. In the new format the report launches this year, a number of “hot spots” are selected for coverage, providing the reader with an up-to-date view of recent advances and their significance in the context of basic and clinical knowledge. The report’s existence is the result of a strong belief in the importance of spreading scientific knowledge. More important, the report aims to broaden the audience for such research. The rapid progress in brain science provides continuous news about different aspects of brain function, which makes it difficult even for specialists to stay abreast of current findings. A publication that brings major advances in brain research to neuroscientists, professionals, and lay readers alike in a readable and attractive form—while maintaining a high quality of scientific information—is an invaluable resource.
The Birth of Brain Awareness
In 1992, the Dana Foundation decided to share with the public the advances in brain research that were taking place in laboratories and hospitals around the world. After all, the public would be the ultimate beneficiaries of the progress made in knowledge of the brain.
The foundation promoted, first in the United States and later in Europe, the alliance of a group of distinguished neuroscientists who would commit themselves to public awareness of brain research and its potential and to the dissemination of information in a comprehensible and accessible way. Thus was born the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. At that time, many active researchers in the neurosciences regarded the initiative with skepticism, thinking that the responsibility as too big for a private foundation and that it should rather be in he hands of public institutions and governments.
The popularity of Brain Awareness Week, and the success of the multiple publications and activities the world over, including the Dana Alliance’s annual progress report, illustrates the error of that judgment. The foundation has succeeded in arousing in the general public the perception that neuroscience directly relates to their personal lives.
Treating the Disorders of Modern Life
This year, the report deals primarily with the advances achieved in the understanding of brain disturbances that have a particular incidence in modern societies, such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and brain damage from blunt head injury. However, the report neglects neither the contribution of brain research to the understanding of other social problems, such as substance abuse and obesity, nor the discussion of opportunities offered by newly emergent technologies.
The recent hypothesis that Alzheimer’s disease results from a dysfunction in neurons’ ability to change their connections to one another represents an attractive augmentation to the dominant theories that focus on amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Plaques and tangles may be consequences, rather than causes, of the disease.
So, too, have recent studies searching for the causes of schizophrenia pointed to new areas of brain activity—in this case, malfunctions related to the brain chemical glutamate—that may lie “upstream” of the causes proposed by older hypotheses.
In treating post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers have looked to new brain areas but also to new therapies and technologies aimed at attenuating persisting memories of traumatic events and reducing the direct effects of brain injury. These therapies range from memory recall through virtual reality to reduction of the cytotoxic effects of brain damage with drug treatments.
Like some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse, and excessive food intake were once thought to be the voluntary expression of character flaws, rather than pathologies of the brain. Today, scientists realize with increasing clarity the role of the brain’s reward pathways in the compulsive intake of drugs and food. In cases of both obesity and alcoholism, scientists believe they have correctly identified the brain areas critical to behavioral control and susceptibility to abuse.
Control of a different sort has been key to advances in brain-machine interface, which aims to enable subjects immobilized by nervous system injuries to interact with the environment via external devices controlled by the electrical activity recorded from nerve or muscle cells. Thanks to progress made in recent years, this dream too is approaching reality.
Brain Science on a Global Scale
The variety and significance of the advances summarized in the 2009 Progress Report emphasize their potential for improving the lives of millions of persons afflicted by nervous system disturbances, and they serve to justify the efforts of scientists and funding agencies in brain research. However, the complementary role of neuroscience research in extending our knowledge about the mechanics of the normal human brain will in the long term have an equal or even larger influence on our lives. For example, concepts of legal responsibility and guilt, methods in education, or the possibility of external control of brain activity to modulate human behavior will be determined in the future by advances in brain research. The processes by which the brain generates consciousness and other complex cognitive functions are still unknown, but they are increasingly accessible to scientific scrutiny and, judging from the rhythm of advances, are closer to being realized than we once thought. The social impact of a scientific understanding of human behavior will surely be immense, making the exploration of the brain the principal scientific challenge of the twenty-first century.
We must involve all countries of the world in the scientific adventure of exploring the brain. In a global community constantly brought to the brink of confrontation, science is a common territory where rationality is the principal moving force and where concepts and theories have to be experimentally confronted with reality to become accepted. Scientific research belongs among those few human activities guided by universally respected ethical values, and thus it offers a common ground on which to cooperate, individual differences and beliefs notwithstanding. Having this additional role for modern science in mind, brain research has emerged as a particularly exciting field to test the possibility of global cooperation.