Using Advances in Genomics and Molecular Biology to Untangle the Brain
Posted: August 1st, 2014
As part of a new WBUR's new WBUR weekly feature Brain Matters, Carey Goldberg interviewed Dr. Steve Hyman. Dr. Hyman, who currently serves as the Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute explained the current challenges faced by Neuroscientests and the new methodologies which promise to solve them.
Goldberg: The Obama BRAIN initiative. We’ve had a ‘decade of the brain’ before, in the 1990s —
Dr.Hyman: It accomplished nothing. Because it was a media blitz, it wasn’t based on new science.
Goldberg: So — Why this? Why now? What’s different?
Dr. Hyman: Part of the growing public interest in the brain, and certainly much media attention, is a little bit unfortunate because it focuses on people applying tools, such as brain imaging, in ways that are untutored and underpowered but yield interesting — if not really scientifically valid — ideas about say, why a certain person is liberal or conservative, or why a certain person takes risks or is very self-protective. A subset of those may be scientifically addressable questions, but we’re a long way from understanding them deeply. Nonetheless they’re irresistible to the public and then of course it’s given rise to a new generation of debunkers — fair enough. So maybe we can set aside this false interest, this prurient interest in the brain and focus on the serious matters at hand.
The bottom line is the brain is well recognized to be the linchpin of being human in the sense that it is the substrate of thought, emotion, control of behavior, and therefore, undergirds our life trajectories, our actions, our morality. And when the brain gets sick in any way we realize that it exacts an extraordinarily severe toll on the sufferer, on families, on society. Just think about Alzheimer’s disease, heroin addiction, major depression, schizophrenia, autism, intellectual disability — these are common conditions in which people can no longer exert reliable, effective agency on their own behalf and therefore society often has to step in for them at great cost and often really great pain.
Tragically, for the longest time there wasn’t so much we could do about it. Using medications that were really discovered by luck, by prepared serendipity; using, in more recent years, the few psychotherapies, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, which have been empirically tested, we have been able to help a lot of people manage their symptoms, in some cases to become better stoics. With imaging technologies we began some decades ago — though at really still very relatively poor resolution — to get spatial maps of what’s happening in the brain. But we were really stymied in terms of getting a deeper understanding, a better picture, for several reasons:...
For the full WBUR interview and links to the full Brain Matters series, click here.