Neuroscience Racing Forward More Gains Expected in 'Decade of the Brain'

September 19, 1993|By ELIZABETH SHERMAN

Nine out of 10 Americans are close to someone with a brain-related disorder, and we encounter on average four such disorders in a lifetime. But -- according to a survey conducted by the New York-based Charles A. Dana Foundation, which supports neuroscientific research -- people who know a good deal about other diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer fail to identify the brain as a major source of disease.

This is partly because the brain is involved in so many different medical problems. Most common are migraine headaches, substance abuse, stroke, depression and memory loss, but the list also includes inherited and degenerative disease, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, addiction, nervous system injuries and certain sensory and language disorders. Affecting an estimated 50 million Americans, these diseases cost us more than $300 billion a year.

You don't have to be a brain surgeon to see the size of the problem. Yet brain surgeons are optimistic: 80 percent of the neuroscientists surveyed predict that, by the year 2000, many of these diseases will be well understood and on the way to a cure.

Decade of the Brain

During the last 10 years, scientists have discovered more about the brain than in all previous history combined.

Geneticists identified specific genes responsible for inherited disabilities. Neurologists learned how nerve cells are activated and how they transmit information to other cells. Brain researchers pinpointed areas in the brain involved in sensing, moving and thinking, and in such dysfunctions as epileptic fits. Psychiatrists discovered differences in the brain function of schizophrenics and developed new therapeutic drugs for a variety of mental illnesses.

In March 1989, President George Bush declared the '90s the "Decade of the Brain," and challenging neuroscientists to greater heights, Congress pledged public support.

Accepting the challenge, more than 60 top neuroscientists, geneticists, psychiatrists and government and foundation representatives formed the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives under the chairmanship of David Mahoney, former CEO of Norton Simon Inc. and present chairman of the Dana Foundation, which funds the project.

In November 1992, James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and one of the alliance's four Nobel laureates, PTC called the first meeting, at which members identified 10 major goals for brain research in the nineties:

1. To identify defective genes responsible for Alzheimer's and Huntington's disease.

2. To identify genes responsible for hereditary forms of manic-depressive illness.

3. To develop new drugs and therapeutic strategies for reducing nerve cell death and promoting function recovery after strokes and other forms of brain injury.

4. To develop new drugs and other measures for alleviating the effects of multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, motor neuron disease, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

5. To identify new treatments that promote nerve regeneration following spinal cord and peripheral nerve injury.

6. To develop new and more effective treatments for manic-depressive illness, anxiety disorders and forms of schizophrenia that at present resist treatment.

7. To discover, test and apply agents to block the action of cocaine and other addictive substances.

8. To develop new treatments for pain from cancer, arthritis, migraine headaches, and other debilitating illnesses.

9. To identify the gene that causes hereditary deafness and blindness.

10. To understand the neuronal mechanisms involved in learning and memory.

While warning against hopes for a "magic bullet," alliance members are confident that the fundamental science behind all of these objectives will be achieved in the decade to come.

"This commitment by many of our leading scientists is unprecedented," says Mr. Mahoney, who sees the alliance as a medical Manhattan Project worthy of full government and private support. "It expresses their optimism that neuroscience research can foster cures for diseases that afflict millions, help the elderly live fuller lives and relieve the stigma of mental illness."

At a public forum six months after the first meeting, alliance scientists reported on the astonishing progress made in their various fields.

Genetic Research

Alliance members J. Maxwell Cowan of the Howard Hughes Medical Center, Francis Collins of the National Center for Human Genome Research, and Stephen Warren of Emory University reported that genetic researchers have identified the gene sequences for Huntington's chorea and Fragile X syndrome.

Huntington's is a muscle-wasting disease that leaves the victim helpless and ends in death. Because it shows no signs before middle life, those at risk cannot know if they will develop the disease. Fragile X children also appear normal at first, making this inherited retardation, which affects one in 1,000 people worldwide, difficult to diagnose.

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