TR: What about functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)? It shows activity in various parts of the brain by measuring blood flow, but there’s debate among scientists about what this activity really represents.’
RD: Functional MRI is going to be a very important component of the research here. But what we’re hoping to do is have a better understanding of the neural basis of these fMRI signals. We know that there are hemodynamic (blood flow) changes that are induced by neural activity. What aspect of neural activity induced these changes? We’re still not entirely clear. By the combination of animal and human work that we can do here, we’re hoping to be one of the leading sites in figuring out what that relationship is.
TR: Where is the field with respect to understanding brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s?
RD: I think the public wants honest answers to those questions, even though there’s always the temptation to imagine that we’re going to have important diseases cured in five or ten years. It’s like the IT field. No one predicted Google before Google happened. This is what science is like – if it’s a true breakthrough, something that’s really revolutionary, you don’t know it in advance of it happening.
All I can say is that the pieces are in place for making these really significant advances. The recent announcement of the human haplotype map that’s just been finished by the Human Genome Sequencing Center involving the Broad Institute across the street (from the McGovern Institute) is a very important advance in the genetics field (see “A New Map for Health”). It’s this kind of advance that we want to be able to capitalize on here in our neuroscience work.
The pieces are there. I think there’s going to be very significant progress in some of these brain disorders, but we’re not going to lay out false hope either – they’re very difficult problems.
TR: The McGovern website suggests that a better understanding of the brain can lead to an improvement in social relations. That sounds creepy.
RD: It may sound a little, but let me give you an example I think everyone can relate to. Research into heart disease has led to a revolution in how people live their lives. People have changed how they eat because they understand the impact that eating different things can have on the heart and the development of cancer. People have changed the way they eat, the way they exercise – the whole country is running differently because of what we’ve now understood about basic biology.
I think the same thing is going to happen from neuroscience. As we understand brain plasticity, as we understand brain development, this is going to be incorporated more and more into how we educate our children in an effective way. If we understand the brain mechanisms that control emotion or anger and impulsivity, this is going to affect how we teach children to control their angry emotions and their impulses.
These are the basic elements of human social life [for which] we’re going to understand something about the biology. It’s not that we’re going to be able to influence these things by taking a pill. You’re not going to take a pill and learn things better, or take a pill and not be angry anymore. We’re going to change the way we live based on this biological knowledge.