Mapping the brain harkens economic revitalization

BY CONNOR BURNS ‘13
Senior Staff

President Obama successfully passed comprehensive reform of healthcare finance, and, to a lesser extent, taxes. Now the president is setting his sight on an even more audacious goal: mapping the human brain. Recently, $100 million, a relatively modest sum, has been proposed towards this decidedly immodest goal. Obama compares this project to the Human Genome Project, incepted nearly a decade ago and hailed as one of the greatest successes in modern science, with far-reaching implications for biotechnology and medicine.

No object in the universe exceeds the human brain’s sheer complexity. Numerous technical limitations inhibit our mapping of it, and it remains as underexplored as the deepest parts of the ocean.

Mars, for example, is relatively well mapped in comparison, especially because the US government has put a couple of rovers up there already.

Obama’s call coincides with broader proposals about reinvigorating America’s aging infrastructure, a system whose disrepair resembles something more likely to be found in a developing country than in the world’s largest economy.

Like mapping the brain, developing infrastructure represents a government investment that could help revitalize a fragile recovery.

While bridges and trains help to connect different industries, networks of neurons help to keep a person functioning and healthy, which for an entire nation can make a more meaningful impact than more tangible kinds of upkeep. Further research on the brain will help treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s, but it may also more broadly help us understand and treat mental health issues, one of the nation’s most pressing dilemmas.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues remain stigmatized in this country. Part of the reason may be that their biological bases remain poorly understood. Treatment for mental health can be prohibitively expensive for many Americans, as well as overly time-consuming. Developing cheaper, more effective ways of improving mental health would be a monumental achievement for humanity.

Just as the Human Genome Project offered a series of potential moral quandaries, so too does the study of the brain. Rather than a society which resembles that of the world of the movie Gattaca, in which the genetic elite dominate society, those with cognitive enhancement may come to gain unfair advantage from their access to such technology. Both technologies also cut to the core of what makes humanity human; can we, with genetic or neurocognitive enhancement, remain who we are?

Unfortunately, many people with mental health disorders come to derive a sense of identity from them. For example, a paranoid schizophrenic may come to define himself by a sense of persecution, and to take that away can be just as disorienting as the disorder itself for some patients. Facts of treatment, even effective treatment, vastly lower compliance for a variety of treatment options.

More broadly though, what makes up a personality but a long list of pathologies? Surely we have an interest in helping those with unipolar depression without the horrors of electroconvulsive therapy, but if antidepressants don’t help those with mild depression feel better, what are we doing?

Questions? Email Connor at cburns@fandm.edu.

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