Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Celebrating Science: Uncovering the Mysteries of the Brain

This is the second in a series of blogs highlighting key themes and outcomes from FasterCures’ Celebration of Science, which brought together over 1,000 scientists, educators, industry executives, policymakers, and patient advocates to celebrate the scientific achievements of the last 20 years and jumpstart a new wave of discovery.

The brain dictates when to breathe, when to blink, the way our voice sounds, how we remember our loved ones, and all of the other everyday functions we easily complete without consideration. But what happens when your brain begins to let you down? When disease takes over and starts to break down your body’s ability to communicate with itself?

One of the themes at FasterCures’ Celebration of Science (COS) was the need for progress in how we understand, treat and cure brain disorders. Among the participants at this unique event – which aimed to raise the profile of science and research on the national agenda – were neurodegenerative disease researchers, patients and caregivers dealing with a range of disorders from Alzheimer’s to Schizophrenia to depression, and drug developers working on bringing new therapies to market.

“It’s easy to miss the true impact that these illnesses have on individuals, families, and society at large,” Kafui Dzirasa of Duke University School of Medicine admitted during his session at the National Institutes of Health (NIH.) “If we know that all of those experiences are locked within this organ called the brain, and that disease happens when there are changes with this organ, the question comes, how come we haven’t figured out how to cure these disorders yet?”

Dzirasa explained that the challenge early neurologists faced with the dissection of the brain was that it gave them an understanding of the anatomy of the organ, but “like taking apart a laptop, one cannot truly understand its function unless studied while it is on and processing.” This is where the beauty of brain imaging comes in.

The Power of Imaging

Director of the NIH and Celebration of Science co-host Dr. Francis Collins sat down with Daniel Reich in the NIH MRI center to view images of a brain and the vast detailing available with today’s three-dimensional scans.

“How would this look different on somebody with Alzheimer’s disease?” he asked. The audience watched on the screen as ~30% of the brain image deflated, almost like a sponge losing water. Understanding the functionality and physicality of a healthy versus unhealthy brain through imaging has taught us that there’s an opportunity to detect Alzheimer’s disease early and try to do something about it.

The Human Toll

Judy Bachrach of Vanity Fair shared her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the complications it has created for her family. She painted a picture – through words and photographs – of a vibrant, loving woman full of energy and life. She then shared another picture of the same impeccably dressed lady smiling at the camera. “This” she said, “is not my mother. There is a vacancy there that was never there before.”

Judy went on to talk about how she has had to become her mother’s mother.  From dealing with embezzlement schemes to constantly battling with banks and insurance companies for control of her mother’s accounts, the emotional toll and demands on her time have compounded.

Each year, Judy’s mother must take an Alzheimer’s test for insurance purposes.  As part of this test, she is asked to write a sentence – just one sentence – on any topic she likes.  Judy shared that the last time her mother was able to perform this task, over a year ago, the sentence read: “I am so sorry that my daughter has to take care of me.”

Towards a Cure

One of the final sessions at Celebration of Science was “Alzheimer’s and Other Issues of Aging” led by Pfizer’s Freda Lewis-Hall.  It focused on the steps needed to find meaningful treatments and cures for diseases that plague millions of seniors.

According to the panelists, major pieces of the puzzle that is a cure include:
  - Prevention
  - Funding
  - Learning from failures
  - Patient and clinical trial networking

Dzirasa encapsulated the promise of brain science when he said “I hope you’re one of those sitting in the audience celebrating the progress that we’ve made in the brain, and blown away with this idea that one day these advances may open the doorway to new approaches and new technologies that allow us to see brain illness and treat symptoms before these disorders ever really arise and manifest.”

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