Science & Research

Panel talks future of brain research

Neuroscientists grateful for increased research collaboration, falling costs of key technologies

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2014

A panel of alumni and faculty experts discussed the impact and future of the growing field of brain research Saturday morning as part of the University’s 250th anniversary celebrations.

The event, held in Salomon 101, attracted a crowd of around 200 people.

“Neuroscience is so exciting because it’s a discipline that really sits within multiple other disciplines,” said Diane Lipscombe ADE’00 P’14, professor of neuroscience and incoming interim director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, who facilitated the conversation.

Advancements in technology over the last few decades have been very beneficial to researchers in the field, multiple panelists noted.

“I think (brain) imaging is something that really changed the way we look at the world in regards to neuroscience and even our prognosis of patients,” said Galen Henderson MD’93, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Neurocritical Care and Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

People used to think that the chances of recovery were slim for a patient who was comatose for a certain period of time, Henderson said, adding that “with modern brain imaging technology, we realize that some of these patients are able to do much more than we expected.”

The technology behind genetic sequencing has also advanced, making it significantly cheaper, said Ricardo Dolmetsch ’90, global head of neuroscience at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“I don’t know of anything else that has decreased in cost so much,” he added, drawing laughter from the audience.

“Greater collaboration” among all the researchers and institutions who deal with the brain is critical to neuroscience research, said Melanie Leitner PhD’93, associate director of clinical research at Biogen Idec, a biotechnology company also based in Cambridge.

It’s much easier to collaborate now than ever before, with academics, businesses and the government finding more ways to discuss and share research with one another, Leitner said.

But it has become more costly to collaborate because “unfortunately we have very misaligned incentive structures,” she said.

“We have a lot of data, but sometimes we don’t know what to do with it,” Henderson said, adding that there needs to a be new way of tackling some of the big questions facing brain science.

Another way to increase productivity in neuroscience research is to set a standard, the discussants said.

Currently, a dearth of effective standards has led to a number of issues regarding communication between research groups, Leitner said. Sometimes comparing data is like comparing “apples to oranges” — it just can’t be done, she added.

“Government can be very effective in setting standards for the industry,” she added.

Leitner also said the nonprofit sector does a lot of good work because its main incentive is finding cures, so it sets up effective frameworks for research.

One of the main challenges neuroscientists face is that testing and measuring the brain directly, is difficult, if not impossible, Leitner said.

“Cancer can be taken out and tested, but with the brain this can’t happen,” she added.

Several audience members said they were pleased to learn more about a field that tackles research questions they consider critical.

“It’s the cutting-edge issue in medical science — all the diseases related to the brain,” said Paul Bagatelas P’17.

“I came because this whole issue of neuroscience is at the forefront of issues we need to know about,” said Elizabeth Sherman ’77 P’06 P’09.

Sherman said her one complaint of the panel was its short length. “It could have been interesting to give (the speakers) more time to go into more depth.”

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