Brain Science: Are Therapies Dawning on the Horizon?
Brain Scientists achieve success after success, but also need to adjust their ideas on a regular basis, according to four researchers who recently received a stimulus grant from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
Oscar Wilde already proclaimed: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’
“In 2006 we expected to discover a single gene for depression. One gene, one disorder,” says Professor of Psychiatric Genetics Danielle Posthuma. “We have now thoroughly rejected that concept. We now know that there are thousands of genes involved in diseases such as Autism, ADHD, and Depression. In Schizophrenia, there are likely to be more than 8000 genes.”
Cognitive Psychologist Chris Oliver, who explores how one filters the vast amount of information that comes in through your eyes every day, “I expected that attention would be a simple process, but we now assume that it separates into three different processes, perhaps even more.”
This is an example of how fast old knowledge is discarded. Within a few years, the insights have changed significantly. This becomes evident when speaking to four scientists who recently received a Vici-Grant from the NWO, a stimulus of 1.5 million Euros, for senior researchers to give shape to a survey team.
Besides Posthuma and Oliver, the other two scientists are Biochemist Martine Smit and Neurophysiologist Huib Mansvelder; all working at the VU (Vrije Universiteit) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Now, in the case of the brain, it is hard NOT to pay attention. If you missed it; 2014 has been nominated European Year of the Brain. It’s probably because, in recent years, our gray matter was never absent from the media at large.
It might be because the brain carries the promise to provide insight into what makes us human, and the understanding or possible treatment of disorders such as Autism, Depression, and Schizophrenia seems to dawn on the horizon.
Danielle Posthuma has her crosshairs on Schizophrenia.
“We are now researching if we can grow Pluripotent brain cells (a kind of stem cells, which can still develop into a variety of other cells) of healthy people and people with Schizophrenia. The beauty is that you do not need to know which genes play a role, but can still study what processes are unique to Schizophrenia.”
Martine Smit examines the link between viruses and brain tumors.
“There is increasing evidence that viruses play a role in the growth of brain tumors because they change the communication within cells. We try to attack the proteins that viruses use to do that with antibodies.”
She is hopeful that, in the coming years, this approach will prove to be successful, and could lead to the development of drugs that slow tumor growth.
Addiction is another condition in which the brain plays a significant role. Huibe Mansvelder tries to map the connections between the prefrontal cortex – the ‘control center’ of the brain and the surrounding areas.
“By examining the causal relationships precisely I hope to learn how to suppress those impulses that lead to addictive behavior.”
The applications of research can now stay very close to home. The study focuses on Oliver’s example that could improve road works, where an overkill of yellow signs for road safety, can sometimes create distraction instead of usefulness.
Particles and Neurons
We learn that for various brain disorders therapies dawn on the horizon. All these achievements and promises may well lead to the idea that everything that makes us human stems from our brain. Is there a danger in that assumption?
Chris Oliver thinks so: “I was at a lecture where they showed that certain brain areas from children grew when they learned something. A brain scientist then said, “Look, this demonstrates that what teachers do actually works.”
“If I would be a teacher, I’d feel offended. As if we didn’t know for ages that it works, and some brain lobe suddenly presents the evidence.”
Of course, you can describe the brain at the level of particles and neurons that influence each other, but there should also be room to consider it at the level of concepts such as attention, memory, and consciousness.
Or perhaps at the degree of interaction with our environment. Why are we so attracted to (monitor, TV, smartphone, tablet) screens?
“Information is the reduction of uncertainty,” says Oliver. “That reduction gives a rewarding feeling, just like a bar of chocolate does. A blank screen generates a temporary uncertainty: an envelope of a letter, a news item. At one point, the icon of an app is enough to cause doubt. That property is then engaged by your mobile phone or tablet. Devices should relieve us, but in fact they only create new impulses.”
Mansvelder: “At the beginning of my career, I thought to be able to show how the subjective world of thoughts and experience comes from the physical activity of the brain. But gradually I wonder if that’s even possible.”
Let’s be honest: it’s hard not to be insights that brain researchers managed to wrest the crowd again and leave us impressed. Which again does not mean that the brain sciences have the answer to everything.