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Brain mapping takes a 'holistic' view

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT - A federally-funded push to map the brain might take decades to complete, but could yield cures for diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to schizophrenia.The prospect of a major government-sponsored initiative to map the brain has all sorts of researchers speculating about a future that has always seemed more the stuff of science fiction.

While Melanie Fried-Oken’s lab at Oregon Health & Science University works on translating brain signals to help paralyzed people communicate, Detlev Boison, director of basic and translational research at the Legacy Research Institute, is captivated by dreams of real cures for neurological diseases.

Most of the current treatments for neurological maladies ranging from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s, Boison says, have been halfway measures intended merely to suppress a symptom. And that’s been just fine with the pharmaceutical companies, Boison adds.

“There’s never been an incentive to cure neurological conditions,” Boison says. “They (drug companies) can have loyal customers for their drugs as long as the patient lives.”

But mapping the brain would allow researchers to understand neurological activity on a holistic level, Boison says, including the glia cells that comprise the support structure of the brain. Scientists today are able to measure the activity of a brain, but know very little about the larger picture of how glia cells and the brain as a whole work.

Boison’s own work is focused on non-pharmaceutical ways to bring homeostasis, or equilibrium, to the brain. In some epileptics, for instance, a high-fat ketogenic diet helps ward off seizures. On a simpler level, exercise changes the brain. But scientists don’t know the mechanism by which diet and exercise effect these changes. They might, if all the brain’s functions were mapped.

Portland Trail Blazer sowner Paul Allen has invested $500 million in Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, where researchers have begun a first-stage project to map the mouse brain. The Institute is among the organizations pushing the federal brain-mapping initiative. R. Clay Reid, senior investigator at the Allen Institute, says long-term he can see treatments not only for classic neurological diseases, but also potential cures for many mental illnesses.

Tragic mistakes

But before scientists get too carried away with mapping the brain, they would do well to figure out where their research is heading, warns Paul Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University.

Estimates of a public/private investment for brain mapping that could reach $300 million a year for 10 years have medical researchers in other fields wondering if the money might be better spent in other ways, according to Wolpe.

“It’s generally understood that this is something of a crapshoot, much more so than the Human Genome Project,” Wolpe says.

Wolpe is concerned that true mapping of the brain, even if it takes decades, could open up a Pandora’s Box of ethical dilemmas. While brain scientists are focused on glia, he’s worried about qualia, the subjective experiences we all experience but can never define.

Two people might look at a barn and both might say they see red, but they might be experiencing very different things. Wolpe calls consciousness “the single greatest mystery of the brain.” He’s worried that if we can define it, we might be tempted to alter it too much.

Already, Mark George, director of the Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina, has applied for a patent on a machine that would inhibit lying. Not a lie detector, George’s technology would make it impossible for someone to lie by suppressing areas of the brain associated with deception.

George hasn’t been granted his patent, and the science to construct a lie suppressor is nowhere near complete. But Wolpe says the patent application makes a point. Someday, an army interrogator could learn the truth of an enemy’s plans. But also, a parent could use the lie suppressor to ask a teenage child who really dented the family car. Wolpe isn’t sure that either would be a universally positive development.

“It’s a power that could be very, very dangerous and problematic not only in the hands of a tyrant but even in the hands of a well-meaning democratic society,” he says.

And lie suppression is only one of many possible enhancements or modifications that might result from brain mapping, Wolpe says. Researchers talk up the potential for curing or preventing disabilities such as Down syndrome. People with Down syndrome might have opinions about that.

“We all want to stop disabilities, and there are people throughout our culture, who have diseases, who find that a problematic and pernicious desire,” Wolpe says. “(They are) saying, ‘I am the person you want to eliminate.’

“When we intervene in the brain, when we intervene in enhancing human beings, how can we be certain that we are really advancing humans to flourish rather than inhibit?” Wolpe says. “We have to really spend a lot of time thinking about it and questioning our own values and motives. Unless we are willing to put in that kind of deep examination, we’re certain to make mistakes that could ultimately be tragic.”