Mars? The next frontier is much closer
What is it about a frontier? Whether it is a continent, the Moon or, today, the planet Mars, a frontier is a powerful motivator that speaks to a drive inside all of us to go further and higher. In our constant search for new frontiers, an obvious place is being overlooked, a place about which we still know so little, but which holds enormous potential for improving our lives. And the trip is much shorter — just to the top of our shoulders, to our brains. Given how important the brain is to everything else we do, it’s a trip worth taking.
More than 100 million Americans ― close to a third of the country ― suffer from brain and neurological conditions, with the most prevalent of these conditions — including dementia, stroke and mental health disorders — costing approximately $800 billion annually. Despite these costs, efforts to treat these conditions produce strong results, with every $1 spent treating conditions like depression and anxiety returning $4 in better health and ability to work. Ultimately, the human toll of neurological conditions is incalculable and can bring extraordinary pain, sadness and frustration to patients and families. Easing it is the goal of discovery and care.
Though many treatments are still in development, significant advances in neuroscience have been made, with technologies and benefits so amazing that they approach the miraculous. Brain-computer interface technology can help those with spinal cord injuries regain movement in limbs — and even play the guitar. To treat the tremors of conditions like Parkinson’s Disease, implanted brain pacemakers help patients live normal lives. This technology has also shown promise in treating epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Similarly, focused ultrasound technology can stop tremors non-invasively and is being studied to combat Alzheimer’s Disease.
As amazing as these breakthroughs are, there is still so much we don’t know about the brain and our nervous system. Neuroscientists are still learning how worms process information with the 300 neurons found in their brains. By comparison, human brains have more than 80 billion. Needless to say, the frontier is large.
With the need so great and the promise of results so strong, shouldn’t our brains get more attention?
Well, let’s change that.
From our years working together in Ohio, we know about the power of collaboration and that the need for progress is more pressing than ever. Fortunately, not everyone needs to be a brain scientist to make a difference. Here are some things we can do:
We can participate — Encourage family and friends suffering from neurological conditions to participate in research and clinical trials. It’s a brave and selfless act, but participation is the only way we can uncover new treatments and cures.
We can give — Our donations to charities supporting research and care for brain and neurological conditions supports those living with these conditions and helps expand our knowledge for treatment and prevention.
We can invest — Given the size of the need and the already-proven benefits of treatment, investments by both individuals and large institutional investors in companies researching medical devices, biological therapies and new medicines for the brain are worthwhile — financially and societally.
Our governments can lead — Greater funding is needed for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH provides essential support for research and first-in-the-world clinical trials of treatments for neurological conditions, including many just described. We can help make a difference by calling on our elected officials to increase NIH funding, specifically for the National Institutes on Aging, Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, Mental Health and Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The pandemic has shown the great good that can come from innovative research. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were developed so quickly because they leveraged previous breakthroughs in messenger RNA technology. Similarly, neuroscience research frequently translates to greater understanding across the entire system and can have a multiplier effect in bringing progress to not just one, but many conditions rooted in our brains.
Ultimately, setting our sights on the frontier of the brain can take us someplace we cannot currently imagine — survivorship. “Cancer survivor” was once a term we didn’t hear, but it’s a reality today for millions of people. More and better research in neuroscience could mean one day millions of Americans could say, “I am an Alzheimer’s survivor,” “I am an ALS survivor,” or “I am an MS survivor.”
The brain is the frontier; “survivorship” is our hoped-for destination, a place where we cure the incurable and help millions in generations to come. It is time for a Mars-shot in the neurosciences so we can get there.
Ali Rezai, MD, is a neurosurgeon and the executive chair of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute.
John Kasich is the former governor of Ohio; he does work for organizations and institutions in the mental health field.