My response: Why not? How better invest in medical science? The federal government spends about $3 billion a year in cancer research through the National Cancer Institute for what’s turned out to be a paltry return in terms of improvement in patient survival. I’m all for diverting some of that cash over time to deciphering the neural code and better understanding the language of the brain. If, as taxpayers, we want to see our research money spent most wisely for the benefit of all, then brain science might be just the ticket.
Backing Obama’s plan is certainly in my selfish interests. I wish my doctors had better understood how my melanoma was able to spread from skin to the brain, where it metastasized, grew and ultimately bled last summer, and why five months later I should have a major seizure at the site where the tumor was removed. Should these have come as such great surprises? So there’s a personal mystery to crack here, as these assaults on my brain have affected my thoughts, memories, and desires—essentially, the entirety of my neural landscape.
Our brains, and the minds they contain, largely make us the people we are. Just imagine: The little spaces between our brain cells—the synapses—are the channels through which we think, act, imagine, feel and remember. These synapses encode the essence of personality, enabling each of us to function as a distinctive, integrated individual from moment to moment. And this is all happening right there between our eyes. There’s an immediacy and tangibility to our brains that’s deeply spiritual. When they go wrong, as with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, we cease to be who we were.
It was my fear of losing this integration of thought and personality when planning my radiotherapy regimen last fall that prompted me to fight so vehemently for my hippocampus (see this post). It was just intuitively obvious to me that you don’t mess with that part of the brain where memories are literally formed. I wished then there was more science to back up what I sensed to be true. It should not have been so complicated to convince my oncologists that carpet bombing the cancer in my brain was not the highest purpose of their medical talent. Doing their best to preserve who I am for as long as that’s possible was also their obligation.
We shouldn’t remain such aliens to the brain, this complicated cipher of 100 billion electrically active cells. I’ve tried mostly unsuccessfully in recent days to grasp what might have caused my seizure and how I might avoid a second one. The neurologist who is directing my seizure meds isn’t much help. The complexity of the brain bankrupts our language; observing the brain with our current technologies, we mostly detect an enigmatic uproar. There is nothing I can learn from my doctor that helps much in my decision-making.
While we have improved our ability to diagnose brain problems, we have yet to understand how to remedy them. But deciphering the neural code is not only about physical health. Consider the implications of Obama’s brain project for societal health.
The New York Times broke the story last week, and described the project’s potential: “A deeper understanding of mental illness will improve early detection, resources and rehabilitation, potentially helping us find a way to stop using our prisons as a de facto mental health care system. Similarly, we can leverage brain science for a more cost-effective approach to drug crime. We cannot win the war on drugs simply by attacking supply; we must focus on demand. And that requires decoding the circuitry and pharmacology in the brain of the addict.”
The project is expected to be part of the president’s budget proposal next month. What’s being called the Brain Activity Map hits close to home for anyone who has experienced any form of brain disease or injury, which includes millions of us. I believe the pay back on this project, like the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, could be lavish and that it should be funded. We need to unlock the brain and learn more of its secrets.