Ten years past the ‘decade of the brain’

We are 10 years past the Decade of the Brain. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed, “A new era of discovery is dawning in brain research.” The 1990s were an unprecedented, highly-focused research effort challenging the existing understanding of brain function and the diagnostic and treatment modalities of brain disorders. We were at a historic point of utilizing technology, cumulative knowledge and partnerships between governmental agencies and private enterprises to effect a major change in our knowledge of recognizing, treating and preventing disabling conditions of the brain.

A tenet of the House Resolution of the 101st Congress reads: “Whereas it is estimated that 50,000,000 Americans are affected each year by disorder and disabilities that involve the brain, including the major mental illnesses; inherited and degenerative diseases; stroke; epilepsy; addictive disorders; injury resulting form prenatal events, environmental neurotoxins and trauma; and speech, language, hearing and other cognitive disorders.

So after 10 years, what did we learn? Here are a few of the outstanding advances noted by Cerebrum: The Dana Press Forum on Brain Science, in the “A Decade after The Decade of the Brain.”

One of the most astonishing findings is “neuroplasticity.” Simply stated, it has been historically held that the brain does not generate new cells. Investigations of the past 50 years culminated in the 1990s and Dr. Fred Gage said in the New York Times, “…this was a thrilling discovery. It means that the human brain makes new cells in an area already known to be involved in short-term memory. Some sort of neurogenesis may be widespread in the brain and spinal cord for maintenance. Like the skin, the brain may be repairing itself all the time.” The implications for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and related brain and spinal cord conditions are hope for future interventions and repair.

In the Dana report, Dr. Nora Volkow, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, emphasizes the influences of social interaction on brain health and change. She states, “The human brain is particularly sensitive to social stimuli.” Volkow further explains that the brain changes its circuitry in response to external stressors, good or bad. This may account for modification of genetic expressions that are responsible for traditionally diagnosed mental conditions.

According to Dr. Thomas Insel, of the National Institute of Mental Health, a simple, but crucial, change in descriptive language, from mental disorders to brain disorders, is redefining how we diagnose and treat the disorders of emotion, thought, memory and behavior. Insel, states, “By 2000, we had developed more treatments, including best-selling second generation antipsychotics and antidepressants, but we were no further along in our understanding of the causes.” There was no significant reduction in the rate of psychiatric disorders. He continues by suggesting that future research should focus toward, “the importance of specific brain circuits.” He says, “Unlike a neurological disorder, which often involves areas of tissue damage or cell loss, mental disorders have begun to appear more like circuit disorders, with abnormal conductions between brain areas rather than loss of cells.”

A conclusion for the implications of the Decade of the Brain on 2012 and beyond, is that medicine, science and private enterprise are, in addition to treatment of psychiatric symptoms, advancing the understanding into the causes of traditionally described mental and psychological disorders. With this understanding comes hope for cure, prevention and intervention of brain disorders. It is with greatest hope that with newer medicine, the stigma of being “a less than person,” which has been so insultingly associated to those who have a brain that is struggling to function, will fade away, and that the brain will be treated like any other organ that is challenged. We have a good jump start and the asset that we can build upon is the continued examination of our science, medicine and commitment to the health and welfare of our neighbors.

Edward Harper is a licensed clinical social worker and senior services coordinator for Blount Memorial Emotional Health and Recovery Center.

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