Federal funding vital to search for treatments for brain disorders

Federal funding vital to search for treatments for brain disorders
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Our nation is experiencing a golden age of neuroscience. We’re constantly learning more about how the brain works and what goes wrong in brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. Because of breakthroughs like those of the Human Genome Project, and the development of new scientific tools and techniques, we may be on the cusp of discovering new treatments for a number of brain disorders. But this will not happen without strong and consistent federal investment in basic science research, that helps scientists uncover new ways to slow or reverse the onset of brain diseases.

Without federal funding, most basic scientific research would never occur. This research provides our fundamental understanding of biology and paves the way to develop leading edge tools that are necessary to decipher what’s going on in the human brain during disease. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies depend on government-funded basic research that provides the essential foundation for them to produce the therapies, devices, and treatment approaches that can slow or reverse the course of disease.  

Basic research has driven the discovery of genes and proteins involved in learning and memory that are helping us to understand disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, and intellectual disability. For example, in 1998, my lab and Mary Kennedy’s lab at Cal Tech were studying the basic function of synapses, the places where brain cells meet, and we discovered a gene called SYNGAP1. Through continued research by many laboratories across the world and the sequencing of the genomes of children with developmental disorders, it was later determined that the gene we identified is critical for the development of cognition and that its mutations are associated with intellectual disability, autistic features, and epilepsy.


My lab recently began partnering with a patient advocacy foundation that supports families whose children are living with SYNGAP1 gene mutation, and is working on early pre-clinical studies in an effort to develop potential treatments for this disorder. We would not be able to take the next steps to try to find a therapy without the investment in basic research that led to fundamental understanding of this gene.

The success of this project and countless others underway at the nation’s top research institutions rely on sustained funding from government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). By proposing flat-funding for the NIH and NSF, the administration’s FY2019 budget proposal effectively reduces research investments and, consequently, would impede discovery and progress. Congress has made strides over the last several years to remedy years of underfunding for biomedical research and now is not the time to halt that progress.

Investment in brain research is addressing some of the most challenging human health issues of our time. An opioid epidemic is crippling our country. Veterans arriving home from abroad are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Children are suffering from sports-induced traumatic brain injuries. All of these problems require basic scientific research in order to find solutions. Without proper investment and sustained support, it will take much longer to make the critical discoveries that can lead to pioneering medical advancements in these and other areas in the years to come. As the distinguished philanthropist Mary Lasker famously said, “If you think research is expensive, try disease!”

Neuroscience will transform the lives of millions of people, touching parents and children, scientists and educators, businesses and government. Funding neuroscience research now will reap benefits for citizens across the U.S. and propel our nation forward. The promise of this new revolution in neuroscience is profound, securing our ability to someday alleviate suffering and enhance our true potential.

Richard Huganir is professor and director of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as well as president of the Society for Neuroscience.