With limited technology and a lack of funding, scientists are more behind on understanding the brain than they would like.
“We’re sort of at the place where the world was back around when Copernicus was trying to understand how things move in the sky,” said Chris Schaffer, professor and scientist at Cornell University.
Copernicus – a 15th century astronomer who first formulated that the sun is at the universe’s center, not the earth – had an idea of how things were arranged in the sky, but he lacked the tools to gain a deeper understanding, Schaffer said.
This lack of tools is due in large part to limited funding, but that will hopeful change soon with the BRAIN Initiative, standing for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. It was announced back in 2013 to support funding neurotechnology research.
U.S. Representative Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., held a public forum to discuss the initiative and how it will change treatment for neurological and psychological disorders. Community members and officials gathered at The Crossings in Colonie Tuesday, Aug. 18, to hear about the local efforts and research.
The funding helps national organizations, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), develop long-term research plans to look at how the brain works and is affected by diseases and disorders.
“The human toll is astounding,” said Tonko of neurological disease and mental illness. Despite the amount of people who suffer from disease or illness, a small amount of money goes toward cure research, he said.
Less than a penny of every dollar spent in the nearly $200 million Alzheimer’s disease costs the United States annually goes toward finding a cure for the disease before it begins, Tonko said. The recent research initiatives include a National Alzheimer’s Plan, which set a 2025 goal to find a cure for the disease.
David Hart, board member of the Alzheimer’s Association, said treatments for diseases in-progress are on the verge of development. And while treatments and medications do exist, like dopamine replacement for Parkinson’s disease, many of the eight panelists agreed that mid-disease medication, effective for a time, is costly to families.
“I know that the medications we’re about to hopefully find success with… are going to be enormously expensive medications,” said Hart. “It’s far down the stream from the problem. We have to fix the problem before it becomes a problem.”
The lack of preventative medication, panelists said, is due to a lack in understanding of how the brain works, which is in turn due to lack of funding for tools.
Schaffer said scientists don’t yet understand how patterns of neurons result in thought or movement.
“Broadly speaking, the goal is to try to develop a deep understanding of how the human brain works,” said Schaffer. “This is really a very challenging endeavor. It’s the most complicated thing we know about. It contains our thoughts, emotions, how we interact with the world.”
Once scientists understand that, they can study the role of blood-flow obstruction in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, said Schaffer.
He said in his lab at Cornell, his team is studying how neurons interact in the spinal cord to make organisms walk and move. Only two weeks ago, he said his team saw activity from the first neuron in a live mouse subject after several years of developing the tools.
However, it is the lack of understanding with how the brain works that blocks treatment for diseases, mental illnesses and traumatic brain injuries, and has even led to prejudice.
“What you come down to is… stigma is that 500 pound gorilla in the room,” said Glenn Leibman, CEO of the Mental Health Association. He said some people still believe people with mental illness will “get over it,” or push it onto other people.
Tonko said at other forums, police officers who have attended told him a majority of arrests are of people with mental illnesses.
“We have such a poor understanding of where they come from. They come from your brain. It’s something that’s wrong,” said Schaffer.
One audience member, a 37-year traumatic brain injury survivor, said she still encounters people who deny she has a disability because she does not look it. She received the injury from an accidental gas poisoning. Only one year ago, did her doctor find she has lesions on the front, side and rear of her brain. She was also first diagnosed with a seizure disorder.
“When you look at me and say I don’t have a brain injury, that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution,” she said. In college, she had to tell educators what she needed in classes in order to graduate due to memory issues. “I had to advocate for myself.”