These days it seems that neuroscience and its fancy new tools are in the news — a lot. Coming off the heels of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative announcement in April 2013, this attention is entirely unsurprising and timely. From the extensively covered optogenetics, to the controversial and non-invasive method of transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), to the science-fiction like promise of CLARITY (a 3D visualization technique of intact rodent brains), it seems that neuroscientists are unstoppable. With these technologies in hand, the relevant question has become: how do we most effectively implement these tools to answer the most pressing research questions of our society today?
Dr. Cameron Carter, Director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and UC Davis Imaging Research Center addressed some of these issues in a public lecture, this past Monday, at the UC Davis Health Center in Sacramento entitled Brain Research: New Discoveries and Breakthroughs at UC Davis. During the first half of the presentation, Dr. Carter reminded the audience that with 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections, constantly changing throughout a lifetime, what’s surprising isn’t that things can go wrong. What’s surprising is that the brain ever succeeds in coordinating as mundane a task as picking up a pencil in the first place. In fact, it’s at this intersection — of mental disease and mental health — that we, as researchers, are able to glean the most insight about the limits of our nervous system. This understanding is key to the development of novel, effective, deliverable therapies and early interventions. Furthermore, these therapies and evidence-based strategies can only have a real impact if they are appropriately disseminated to the community and mental health workers at the outset.
In October 2014, with the support of Former Senator Darrell Steinberg, author of Prop 63 (aka as the “California Mental Health Services Act), the partnership of UCLA, and the tangible support of Dean Frederick J. Meyers, The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis was launched:
In the past few months, the center put out a call for pilot research grant applications (awards were $200,000 each, totaling 4.3 million dollars). 65 applications were received and peer reviewed. 16 of them were funded. UCD Neuroscience Graduate students: you will recognize some of these names and faces. The awards funded questions and methods that spanned quite the range. The projects included: the use of sensitive calcium sensors (Drs. Karen Zito and Lin Tian), non-invasive tDCS (Dr. Charan Ranganath), electrical brain stimulation to enhance learning and memory (Dr. Evan Antzoulatos), the novel combination of ultrasound and fMRI (Dr. Katherine Ferrara), and the saavy use of smartphone apps to collect mental health data on patients (Dr. Tara Niendam).
In a sense, these funded projects are a confirmation that enthusiasm for the novel development and application of neuroscience tools exists today. Yet, this initiative sets itself apart in its practical application of basic science to the real mental health problems we face as a society today.
The atmosphere at yesterday’s lecture was primarily one of hope. This stands in contrast to the attitude in clinical brain research today, Dr. Carter explained to the audience. For the past few years, there has been a discrepancy between how much we’ve learned in neuroscience and how difficult it is to develop drug therapies despite this knowledge. So, what gives?
There’s still hope, Dr. Carter urges. The more we learn about how brain circuits function, he explains, the more well-poised we are to develop therapies for when those circuits malfunction. “Let’s use this knowledge to fix the broken circuits,” said Dr. Carter. In essence, this is the exhortation shared by the BRAIN Initiative, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
From this graduate student’s perspective, this can only be done effectively if policy makers, basic researchers and affected individuals in the community continue to communicate.
For those interested in participating more directly in this conversation and learning more about the center’s iniatives, mark your calendars for the “Early Psychosis Symposium” planned for September 17th, 2015 at the UC Davis Health System, Sacramento Education Building, 4610 X Street Lecture Hall 2222. A copy of the agenda can be found here.