The human brain is a wondrous bit of biology, one often taken for granted. The brain has been compared to familiar technologies such as telephone switchboards or supercomputers, but new discoveries made by scientists show it is much more valuable. The brain is astonishingly complex, and the true extent of its neural capabilities is still unknown. It contains roughly 100 billion neurons that form about 100 trillion synaptic connections. Humanity has only recently gained the ability to venture into this exciting new world, create ever more useful maps and profit from opportunities for economic gain. Fortunately, there is now adequate capital to fund neuroscience research. Last year, both America and the European Union launched major programs -- the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project, respectively – that expand the scope of brain research.
Timing is imperative, as the already massive economic costs associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological illnesses are expected to rise as the populations in advanced economies are aging rapidly. In an era of vicious budget battles, some shortsighted arguments might be made to oppose this public funding of research. While fiscal responsibility is admittedly of high importance, ignoring this opportunity would almost certainly be a mistake in the long term.
Like the great sea voyages of the Age of Exploration, societal investment in neuroscience research involves costs and risks, yet the results can fuel unprecedented economic growth. Since neuroscience also holds the promise of improving millions of lives, funding research to advance the frontiers of neuroscience is a wise investment.
A Brief History of Neuroscience
Knowledge of the human brain was limited until about 20 years ago. Ancient Egyptians, while vaguely aware of some of the negative impacts of head trauma, believed the heart to be the seat of intelligence. The Ancient Greeks had differing primitive views, though the brain was commonly thought of as simply a sort of radiator designed to cool the blood. In the 1700s, Luigi Galvani pioneered the idea that muscles and the nervous system are electrically excitable.
Modern neuroscience began only in the 1890s, when the combination of using microscopes and colored dyes first made the shape of single neurons visible. This is around the same time that work with brain injury patients began to show that certain anatomical structures and regions have specific functions that affect behavior. In the mid 1990s, a giant leap forward began with the development of new tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Imaging technology allowed for the systematic and scientific study of living brains. Since then, many technical improvements have made possible the visualization of not only anatomical structures, but also the rates of metabolic activity over time.
Governments around the world are recognizing the importance of investing in basic and clinical research to advance fundamental scientific understanding. Improving health and promoting economic growth are also priorities. This research spending creates high-paying jobs. In 2011, for example, biomedical research grants from the National Institutes of Health created more than 430,000 quality jobs that produced more than $62 billion in new economic activity here in the United States.
Brain science is especially important to the economy. In the United States more than 1,000 brain diseases and disorders cause more hospitalizations than any other category, including cancer and heart disease. Neurological illnesses strike more than 50 million Americans per year and cost the economy more than $460 billion in healthcare expenses and lost productivity. According to recent medical-industry research, delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s by just five years could produce annual savings of $51 billion in health care costs by 2015.
Public Research Supports Private Innovation
Governments are best suited to fund basic research, but exciting applications are already being seen in the private sector. A company called CereScan is using cutting-edge functional imaging technology to diagnose a variety of neurological conditions and better guide treatment options. Chairman and CEO John Kelley is passionate about the potential for improving lives. He recently shared with me a confidential presentation given by Dr. Greg Hipskind, MD., PhD, CereScan’s Chief Medical Advisor, to an audience at the B.R.A.I.N. Conference in Long Beach, Calif., on the evaluation and treatment of traumatic brain injuries – the No. 1 cause of death and disability in children and young adults.
Approximately 7 million Americans are currently disabled as a result of a brain injury. By comparing a patient’s brain scans with those of a normative database, statistical differences in brain activity can be mapped and studied. Specific regions can be identified as suffering from hypoxia -- a lack of adequate oxygen supply. Near infrared light (NIR) therapy shows promise of increasing blood flow in targeted areas through vasodilation and angiogenesis. Kelley was excited to announce that an efficacy study using such techniques has been approved by an Institutional Review Board in partnership with the Tug McGraw Foundation and the Invisible Brain Injury Project.
Returns Require Investment
From 1988 to 2003, the United States invested $3.8 billion in the Human Genome Project, which has since created economic activity of $796 billion and holds further promise as private industry innovates new products and services. That amounts to a return of $141 for every $1 invested.
Neuroscience still contains more unknowns than the challenge of genetic sequencing did, but such examples of scientific returns should not be forgotten. As exciting as today’s neurotechnology is, the field faces danger from politics. Sequestration and budget cuts threaten the momentum of neuroscience research and development. Cuts would be felt immediately through the loss of jobs and economic growth prospects would suffer over the long run - actually detracting from the goal of a sustainable and balanced budget.
While America is a scientific leader in this growing field, other countries are investing, too. Continued backing of neuroscience research is necessary for the United States to remain globally competitive. Take action and call or write a letter to your congressman to voice support today.
Sources and Further Reading
America’s Neuroscience Initiative: Mind Expanding. The Economist. 2013 Brain Facts: A Primer on the Brain and Nervous System. Society for Neuroscience. 2012. NINDS Overview. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. February 2009. Brain Facts: A Primer on the Brain and Nervous System. Society for Neuroscience. 2012. The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America. National Institute of Mental Health. 2010. CDC Report: Mental Illness Surveillance Among Adults in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 2011. Medical Research: Saving Lives, Reducing the Cost of Health Care, Powering the Economy. Research!America. 2012.