Alluring Brain Science: Stale, Creative Ferment or Both?

brain-20424_640It’s a curious time to be a neuroscientist. The science of brain and behaviour is everywhere: books, documentaries, conferences and new findings aplenty, some dubious, some not. The recognition by the general public that the brain deserves serious attention is important and gratifying. Much of the public’s interest derives from worries about maintaining brain health and, somehow, fixing brains that are diseased or unwell. Disorders of brain and behaviour (such as anxiety or depression to brain tumours and beyond) come with enormous costs to health, well-being and imposition on already strained health services. Consequently, many private and public agencies support wonderful research programmes in neuroscience. The Wellcome Trust, for example, funds a vast and far-reaching programme in neuroscience supporting work that extends from molecules all the way to imaging the working brain. In the USA, the National Institutes of Health and of Mental Health, support a burgeoning neuro-research portfolio. The Defence Applied Research Programme Agency (DARPA) supports a large neuro-research programme, in part driven by the desperate need for viable treatments for brain trauma deriving from blast injuries in active service personnel. Philanthropy is also active: my own institution (Trinity College Dublin), for example, recently received a joint endowment with the University of California – San Francisco of €175 million for work on brain health – the single largest endowment in our history.

So all is well, isn’t it?

Plenty of money, excellent facilities, lots of interesting problems to work on, and amazing new technologies. The research problems loom large too – public awareness of problems such as dementia or depression are at an all-time high. And yet there are misgivings. The deep answers to problems that impact public health, well-being and welfare are not coming quickly enough. The one hundred or so failed drug trials for Alzheimer’s disease have come at cost reckoned in the billions; these are huge sums for any company to absorb, and beyond the capacity of most. These failed clinical trials have been sufficiently dispiriting that many major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned research in brain diseases as too complex and costly for them to sustain.

Answers to other seemingly intractable questions don’t seem at all close: for example, how can a brain be conscious? How can a brain experience diffidence or embarrassment or reason in a moral fashion, and be simultaneously aware that it is so doing? How can a brain play rugby? Should a brain play rugby? How many brain systems are there for processing information about the world within which we live – the three dimensional spatial world? These worries may be entirely unreasonable, of course: neuroscience does not (yet) have the deep and broad bedded-in history that other sciences have. A few simple principles aside, there has been no great theoretical revolution comparable to those of Darwin, Newton or Crick and Watson.

Recent controversies over the replicability and reliability of research studies have been healthy, as they expose limits to knowledge. Understanding the dangers of limited statistical power through too few participants, overfitting of data, p-hacking and retrospective hypothesis generation is becoming widespread. Thankfully, we are seeing fewer papers of the ‘brain area x does trivial function y’ variety: the brain is, by definition, more complex than our current models of it.

There are other problems too. Some worry about definitional issues: where does neuroscience stop and psychology or molecular biology start? Really, nobody should care too deeply about such questions: there are no knowledge silos in nature, and human silos for knowledge aren’t useful. Knowledge blending is the game: it’s good to know something of the engine, the engineering principles and the nuts and bolts of the car you drive, and not just the dynamic relationships between the steering wheel, accelerator, brake, and petrol consumption! To take one example, there has been great mutual enrichment between socio-psychological theories concerned with stereotyping and those concerned with the brain’s mentalizing network (activated when attempt to understand agency in others). That brain regions involved in disgust are activated when making judgements about members of despised outgroups is an important finding, integrating psychological processes supporting stereotyping into more general biological processes concerned with cleanliness and self-other differentiation.

Adding to the ferment are new neurotechnologies – some astounding, like optogenetics, deep-brain stimulation or brain imaging. Others are potentially dangerous (such as home-made transcranial direct current stimulator devices to ‘enhance’ brain function). More subtly dangerous is off-label experimentation with supposed procognitive drugs (which aren’t meaningfully pro-cognitive at all) that some use to try and short-circuit the learning they haven’t done for examinations they have in prospect. In other cases, unhelpful rules govern therapeutic trials for psychedelics and other compounds showing great therapeutic promise depression. The opportunity cost of meaningful treatments foregone (and lives lived at less than full potential) because of inappropriate worries about addiction liability is ignored.

Neuroscience and Public Policy

We see the almost obligatory neuro- prefix to concepts from ethics to politics to leadershipto marketing and beyond everywhere. No wonder the great ‘neurobollocks’ rejoinder, blog and meme as a warning to the credulous. There regular calls to apply neuroscience in classrooms, for example, despite there being no meaningful knowledge base to apply. Similar calls arise for the use of brain imaging in the courtroom, as if the underlying science to detect the presence (or absence) of lying, dissimulation or confabulation were settled. It is not. And the public will have been done no favours if one form of voodoo science (lie detection polygraphy) is substituted by another. The background thinking, of course, has not been done: a science that revealed actual thoughts (as opposed to coloured blobs representing neural activity) would be present a remarkable violation ofcognitive liberty and of our assumed rights to cognitive privacy. And public policy crosses over into plenty of other areas. The Torture Memos, for example, posited a theory of the relationship between brain functioncognition and extreme stressor states which is utterly false, and dangerously misleading. There are lots of sticky questions here for the willing (neuro-) ethicist to ponder.

Scaling Neuroscience

One useful effect of the focus on the brain is destigmatisation – seeing conditions such asaddiction as a brain and behaviour disorder rather than a moral failing facilitatesunderstanding and treatment. A successful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (there are none) would have a deep, broad and huge impact, would be pharmacotherapy-based, and would scale easily (questions of cost of access and diagnosis aside). Other interventions less so: deep-brain stimulation for drug-refractory Parkinson’s disease is a tremendous and undeniable success, but the operation is neurosurgically serious, and very costly. Of course, restoring individual productive potential should be important to the bean-counters; restoring quality of life to sufferers is beyond value. But only about 100,000 patients have had this operation; scaling it to all sufferers world-wide is a pipe-dream, given the complexity of the biomedical teams involved, from neurosurgery to post-surgery rehabilitation.

Where early interventions could have the greatest effect, there is little money to be made: this is where public neuro-health interventions are most badly needed, as they address prevention rather than cure. Early childhood poverty and other toxic stressors have enduring effects on brain structure and function. Relieving ‘early years’ poverty through income support, school meal provision, and intensifying education has an upfront expense, but a great downstream benefit in terms of productive lives supported. Similarly, aerobic exercise interventions promote brain and cognitive function, in addition to heart health. Other interventions affecting dietloneliness, cognitive stimulation, better urban design can have marked effects on brain structure and function through the life-course, but there is little profit in these interventions, despite their obvious individual and social value. Similarly, there is little direct profit to be made from public sanitation or vaccination: but the benefits to all are obvious in the dramatic reduction in disease burden, death, and disability.

Neuroscience as a career

Exploring the brain is wonderful and gratifying, but you also have to earn a living. Many neuroscience programmes rely on matrix arrangements between multiple home departments (psychology, physiology, biochemistry, etc.), reflecting the recent multidisciplinary origins of neuroscience as a discipline. Others do not. But where do newly-minted neuroscience graduates go? There are few reliable data-points available on career destinations. Those going into research encounter the same problems of every other discipline: too many individuals chasing too few academic positions. Traditional pharmaceutical industry recruitment has been stymied since the great recession. The pharmaceutical industry has generally cut investment in neuroscience research, as it has been tremendously expensive, and very largely a failure. Going into research neuroscience as a career must be an ‘eyes-wide-open’ affair. Neuroscience as a genericeducation ranges widely, from data analysis and collection, to handling instrumentation, to scholarly writing and presentation. Combining it with an alternative postgraduate MSc training route might offer routes to unusual career successes. And some go far beyond: the wonderful singer, Emeli Sandé, has a degree in neuroscience!

This article is based on a piece originally published by the THES as ‘When will neuroscience blow our minds?

Cross-posted at The Interrogated Brain

Follow me on twitter and see my homepage.

My book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work – The Neuroscience of Interrogation, is available via Amazon (published by Harvard University Press, Nov, 2015) examines brain function under extremities of stress and duress, and getting the science,ethics and practice of human information gathering in line.


Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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