Leshner examines neuroscientific advancements, public reaction

By Alanna Koehler ’15Managing Editor

Robert Jinks, associate professor of biology, was endowed with the task of introducing this week’s Common Hour speaker, Alan Leshner ’65, the current CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of Science.

Leshner’s résumé includes a PhD in physiological psychology from Rutgers University, a 10-year professorship at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., and various positions with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

He served as the deputy director and acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), as well as the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Leshner was appointed to the National Science Board by former president George W. Bush and re-appointed by President Barack Obama. He has held positions in various professional societies and has served on the board of directors for the Quality Education for Minorities Network, among several other responsibilities and distinctions.

Leshner’s presentation, entitled “Neuroscience, the Public, and Public Policy,” investigated many recent advancements in the field of neuroscience, including brain imaging techniques, and their effects on the growing divide between the scientific community and the public.

“Neuroscience is one of the fastest-moving, accelerating, fields in all of science,” Leshner said. “The advent of new technologies is enabling us to ask wholly different questions than we ever could ask before or even think we would be able to ask. Those kinds of newly-answered questions are changing our fundamental understanding of a variety of core human phenomenon.”

Leshner described how brain scans have led to a greater understanding of neurodevelopment and mental illness.

“Brain imaging finally enabled us to see, in humans, over the course of adolescence — during which so much behavior is changing, where so much is going on developmentally — that, in fact, the brains are

substantially different,” Leshner said.

Comparisons show, for example, that, during adolescence, differences are seen in white matter tracts in the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control. According to Leshner, this helps to explain the vast differences in behavior exhibited by a 12-year-old versus an eight-year-old.

However, not only are new neurotechnologies changing the world’s understanding of the brain, but they are also shaping the perception of stigmatized disorders.

“It’s changing our view of a variety of disease categories, and then, of course, what to do about them,” Leshner said. “It’s changing our views about people who have mental illnesses, and that changes not only the way we approach them from a clinical point of view but how we should be approaching them from a public policy point of view.”

Leshner cited studies that demonstrate how the brains of schizophrenics might be morphologically different and respond differently to cognitive tasks than the brains of non-schizophrenics — studies that dispel the ideas of schizophrenogenic mothers and refrigerator parents, or that behaviors indicative of schizophrenia and autism are the result of poor parenting.

“The fundamental point was that, actually, mental illnesses reflect altered brain function,” Leshner said. “That was absolutely revolutionary, especially if you think your mother did it to you.”

Leshner enumerated upon the social implications of these findings.

“Mental illnesses are brain diseases; they’re not about weakness; they’re not about a failure of will; they’re not about just poor parenting,” he said. “This was the most liberating discovery of the families of the mentally ill, who felt terribly responsible and terribly guilty. And, sadly, too much of society still believes that way and, in fact, stigmatizes not only mentally ill individuals but their families, as well.”

To further illustrate this idea, Leshner spoke of an issue with which he worked extensively as the director of NIDA: addiction. He outlined how voluntary drug use can eventually become compulsive drug use. Cocaine, for example, is incorporated into the striatum, causing a pleasurable surge of dopamine, according to Leshner.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows how the brain, and this incorporation of cocaine into the striatum, changes over time with exposure to the drug. This imaging technique can even illustrate the phenomenon of craving — affected by the dopamine increases — by comparing the brain activity of an addict exposed to a neutral photo and a picture associated with cocaine.

“If you show these abstinent cocaine addicts an image of somebody using cocaine, it elicits phenomenal craving,” Leshner said. “What’s important is you can see critical areas of the brain activated by the image, the same image that elicits craving. More recently, they have found that, in fact, it also causes this dopamine surge that really makes you want that drug.”

Like in the case of schizophrenia, this heightened understanding of addiction and craving should  have an effect on  the social perception of addicts

“Addiction is a brain disease,” he continued. “It’s expressed in the form of compulsive behavior. You can’t just will it away.”

Leshner went on to describe how the persistent stigmatization of the mentally ill — coupled with the growing fear of prospective uses for new technologies in law and medicine — highlights the public’s distrust of, disregard for, or ignorance to neuroscientific advancement.

“Neuroscience advancements are abutting against core beliefs: people’s either intuition about the world or their religious beliefs or it can simply be what their peer group believes,” Leshner said. “These kinds of issues, and an array of other issues where science is encroaching on human values, are breeding a level of science-society tension we’ve never quite had before. An interesting question is: how do you deal with it?”

Leshner pointed to lack of immediate consequences and an impersonal impact as reasons for this disconnect. He explained that many scientific findings have few direct impacts on the lives of the general public, members of which can simply choose to ignore much of what they do not accept.

“People only care about issues that affect them personally or at a local level,” Leshner said. “You’ve got to make whatever the issue is personally meaningful.”

His solution to expelling the stigmatization and gaining greater public support for and understanding of scientific research is to focus on public engagement in addition to the standing concept of greater public education.

“Actually go out and interact with the public in a different way,” Leshner said. “Go from communicating at the public to communicating with the public. We’re arguing that what the academic and scientific communities need to do is actually learn to listen to the public — find out their concerns, find out their priorities, and let them pose some of the questions that ought to be answered. Try to find a common ground.

“We’re all in this together,” he continued. “Given the importance of science, I think we all have an obligation to try to work on this relationship.”

Junior Alanna Koehler is the Managing Editor. Her email is akoehler@fandm.edu.

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