By David C. Van Essen, Ph.D.
President, Society for Neuroscience
This year’s Progress Report summarizes more than 100 research discoveries that collectively illustrate how research in neuroscience is helping to better understand, diagnose, and treat many debilitating diseases and disorders of the nervous system. Each of the 10 sections focuses on discoveries related to a particular class of disorders or to a cross-cutting theme such as neuroethics. These individual discoveries (“nuggets of neuroscience”), and the broader themes that emerge from the report as a whole, are a significant part of the grand quest to understand the human brain in health and disease.
The human brain is an amazingly complex structure for processing information and controlling all aspects of our behavior. The complexity of the brain’s intricate neural circuitry, involving billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, greatly exceeds that of any other organ system in the body.
This complexity is evident at many levels. At molecular and cellular levels it involves exquisitely choreographed molecular signals for transmitting information from one cell to another and for adjusting the strength of these signals during development and learning. At the systems level, it involves a symphony of coordinated neural activity patterns involving thousands of distinct brain structures communicating through tens of thousands of anatomical pathways. It also involves a high degree of individual variability in brain structure and function from one person to the next that is responsible for the tremendous diversity in our individual personalities and intellectual capabilities.
Given the brain’s staggering complexity—far greater than that of a space shuttle or a supercomputer—it is hardly surprising that the nervous system can malfunction in countless ways. Indeed, more than 1,000 disorders and diseases of the nervous system have been identified, and the list continues to grow. The most prevalent afflictions, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, stroke, and learning disabilities, in aggregate affect a large fraction of our population and place a staggering burden on society in terms of economic impact, distress, and human suffering.
Without major progress in preventing and treating nervous system disorders, this burden will only grow as people continue to live longer. In order to accelerate progress, we need a much deeper understanding of disease mechanisms and of the normal mechanisms of brain function and brain plasticity, or adaptability. Such advances, including those highlighted in this report, will allow us to better harness and enhance the normal capacity of the nervous system to regenerate, repair, and adapt itself to insult and injury.
Several broad themes emerge from accomplishments in brain research in 2006. One involves progress in characterizing the genetic factors contributing to a variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders. These range from the elucidation of the role played by specific genes in familial Parkinson’s disease to the identification of many anxiety-related genes in a mouse model.