Why brain research makes me hopeful

Brain Research: The imaging of 600 childrens’ and adolescents’ brains in Oklahoma is
part of a larger research initiative that seeks to understand the developing brain, its
functional regions and its pathologies.

Nothing makes me more hopeful about the future than reading about brain research and
how it might improve the lives of those who deal with serious mental illness. The scope
of projects underway is vast and requires large investments of time, talent and money.
The government agency that pilots government dollars for brain research is the National
Institute of Health, www.ih.go. There are other agencies such as the Brain and
Behavior Research Institute working on fascinating projects. See
https://bbrfoundation.or .

The average human brain weighs three pounds, yet it consumes approximately 20
percent of the oxygen we breath and 20 percent or more of our daily caloric intake.
Interconnected neurons by the billions, cluster in various functional regions to interpret
signals carried on axons like the wires of a complex super computer. Very little is
understood about how the human brain works and even less is known about how to
treat it when things go wrong. 

he World Health Organization estimates that devastating brain disorders affect more
than one billion people worldwide. In response, researchers from around the world are
focusing on the brain with a new energy. In Europe, he Human Brain Project is
investing $1 billion for computer modeling of the human brain. In the United States,
President Obama declared mapping of the brain’s neural pathways a priority in 2013
with the announcement of the rain Research through Advancing Innovative
Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. 

The BRAIN Initiative is a large-scale coordinated effort to explore the human brain. The
National Institute of Health is in charge of the budget for this research estimated to be
$100 million a year for ten years. Eric Kandel, a renowned neuropsychiatrist, said, “The
long-term goal of these highly ambitious projects is to gain a better understanding of the
anatomical, molecular and circuit basis for the logical operations carried out by the
human brain.” Kandel, in the ature Reviews

article titled “Neuroscience thinks big (and collaboratively),” puts into perspective how “big” this undertaking is when he reminds readers that scientists are just now making progress in understanding the brains of worms and mice.  The umbrella concept over all of the research projects is the goal of mapping the brain. This project is known as the the uman Connectome Project

It can be compared to The uman Genome project that was launched more than 25 years ago. Completion of the enome Project was announced in 2003. At the onset of the project in 1990 one of the goals was to speed research. There were debates about the costs and ethics. At
the helm was geneticist Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health. Francis
Collins, now director of the National Institute of Health, is a lead project coordinator in
the he Human Connectome Project. Like the Genome project, the Connectome study will set standards with measurable criteria.

An update on the Connectome was announced in July of 2016. Researchers drawing on
data collected and shared in the Human Connectome Project updated the brain map.
The new map now “includes 83 familiar regions, such as Broca’s area (the area in the
frontal lobe associated with speech), [it] also includes 97 [brain regions] that were
unknown -- or just forgotten.” Researchers found that they could map an individual’s
brain with 96.6 percent accuracy in a little over an hour of scanning. It is now estimated
that there are 150 to 200 distinct cortical areas in each brain hemisphere. 


Anticipating what a map of how the brain circuits function will reveal about behavior,
researchers want to know how the brain changes in adolescence. Laureate Institute for
Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma is among the 13 U.S. sites chosen for a landmark
study. Laureate is currently enrolling 9 and 10 year-old participants in the “Adolescent
Brain Cognitive Development Study” known as the “ABCD Study.” 

“Investigators will look at multiple health outcomes including weight, growth, sleep
quality, injury, mental health and substance use, and other life experiences such as
academic success, sports, physical activity, and driving a car.” 10 Nationwide 12,000
children will participate in the study. 

The Laureate Brain Institute will study 600 Oklahoma children over a ten-year period in
hopes of understanding the developing brain’s neural pathways and its pathologies.
“The project makes use of scientific and technological advances in brain imaging that
allow investigators to measure maturation in the context of social, emotional and
cognitive development.” 1 The ABCD study will take 10 years and the estimated cost is
$300 million. Laureate has been awarded $32 million for the study. 

Terry L. Jernigan, a University of California, San Diego professor of cognitive science,
psychiatry, and radiology said, “Until not too long ago, people thought that the
development of the human brain was essentially accomplished in the first few years [of
life]. However, it’s become clearer and clearer that the cognitive development of the
brain is very protracted.

“Adolescence is a vulnerable transition from childhood to adulthood. Teenagers are the
age groups most likely to die from accidental injuries, like car crashes, and are those at
highest risk for the development of serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, and
depression,” said Jernigan.


Henry Markram said, “The cost of brain disease is estimated to be 10 percent of the
world’s gross domestic product, yet the development of new treatments is grinding to a
halt.” Studies like the ABCD have the potential to provide evidenced based information
to advocates and policymakers who want to improve the lives of those affected by brain
disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, addiction, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic
brain injury. This new focus on brain research and data sharing brings hope for a better
future and the promise of the reduction of the stigma associated with these brain-based
diseases.

Williams is a NAMI Edmond-North OKC member, volunteer, Family-to-Family teacher
and support group facilitator.

Erik Collins