When you're 120 -- and I'm betting a surprising share of you will arrive at that age (and by the way, I intend to be among you) -- will you still hear music and the sound of the glitzy folks going to and fro? When some of us are a century plus, will we be able to recognize our friends and relatives? Will we be able to absorb new information easily -- will we be able to walk and chew gum at the same time?
I've been fascinated for years, as I assume many of you are, by the changes in my capacity to remember stuff -- old and new -- and by the cognitive wobbles of my friends over the course the last decade or so.
Barack Obama, together with Abraham Lincoln, who was an inventor of note, and Teddy Roosevelt, who held an undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard, is among the most tech and science savvy presidents of all time. Some weeks back, Obama sketched out a giant "brain mapping" project -- which in its scope, scale, and impact would be every bit as critical historically as the human genome effort initiated by Bill Clinton some years ago. The still evolving national brain gambit looks to be a propulsive effort which will galvanize key biomedical agencies at the federal level and a network of academic/private researchers from across the country -- including a cadre of researchers, computational biologists and neuroscientist folks here in T-Town.
I thought I'd use the president's new brain mapping project as a pretext to look at what actual human beings are doing with "brainwork" in Tulsa, the future of our biomedical economy, and what developments in neuroscience could do to learning and everyday life.
This is the first in a three-part series that I'll write over the course of the next three months. The effort entails interviews with a variety of local people and a handful of national figures who will be leading the president's brain mapping project and some allied initiatives.
There are long-established studies that suggest that young children are better situated to learn new languages than older children and adults -- are these notions still correct? Some newer work suggests that the human brain is far more plastic than we had imagined and that neurogenesis -- the creation of new brain cells -- is an integral part of the neuro life of even older adults. Is this a sustainable finding -- one that we can exploit in aggressive ways?
• A new book and a review of a recent round of meta-studies, suggests that millions of American children, mostly poor and black and Hispanic kids, have brain damage as a consequence of absorbing residuals from lead paint-encrusted dwellings. This is a terrible outcome -- one with monstrous consequences and huge costs for our society. Is there a way that the neurological systems in the brains of lead poisoning kids can be reanimated?
• Are there avenues for overriding the "circuits" that govern how we receive and process new information: can we accelerate human learning and transform the educational process as a consequence?
Dramatic brain damage is an outsized part of the injuries suffered by returning veterans from our Afghan and Iraq wars. What have we really learned about these kinds of injuries -- do we know any more than we did prior to these military interventions? How does our new understanding of traumatic brain injuries translate into a better understanding of human cognitive and neurological processes?
• Why are Alzheimer's and Parkinson's "rates" rising in the United States? Is it a simple consequence of an aging population, better diagnostic techniques or are there more complex, more ominous processes in play?
Do video games and the television violence predispose kids to carry out or "tolerate" violent? How exactly does video violence alter brain structure and functionality -- or does it?
As it happens, Green Country has a variety of resources that have a stout connection to the national brain mapping project and other big neuro/brain system initiatives. One of our assets, not as visible as many of us assume it might be, is the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa.
The Laureate operation is a repository for a huge database of patient information that goes to the connection between psychiatric illnesses and various brain and neurological metrics. This is the way an Institute publication described the prescient decision taken in the late '90s to collect the massive dataset now available for analytic and research purposes:
"In 1996, the decision was made to establish and maintain long-term, large volume patient databases of descriptors and potential determinants that relate to the development and course of mental disorders in patients presenting to the Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital. ... Recognizing these features as holding unique possibilities for in-depth studies of mental disease, and that the organization and initiation of such studies in a new program were not likely to be funded from other granting sources, the W. K. Warren Foundation Tulsa, Oklahoma having held a long interest in neuropsychiatric disease, pledged significant financial support, recognizing the long-term, prospective aspects requisite for such a study to yield substantive results."
For the paranoid among you, this data set is "anonymized" -- it doesn't contain details about where the information came from. But it is, by a couple of accounts, an incredibly useful asset, which together with contemporary supercomputing power -- soon to be amplified by our Community Supercomputing project at One Tech Center -- is an intellectual/biomedical gold mine.
As things stand, neuroscientists, who are ramrodding our brain research today, have only a crude idea of how our living brains actually work -- what part does what, and how the over 80 billion brains cells that make up a typical human brain actually do cogitation.
The national brain mapping project, regional research efforts and a couple of projects in Europe and Japan are all about what one researcher calls "making sense of neural choreography." Traditionally, brain scientists have used conventional imaging studies -- MRIs and PET scans -- to monitor how the brain and its various parts interact to spawn our thought processes, to regulate our bodily functions and our overall metabolism -- which is of course, the other key thing that the brain does.
Basically, the new project will use much tighter coordination of existing projects and additional funding: the effort could pay huge dividends later in the century by dramatically improving our ability to design educational programs, to aid older people who suffer from degenerative neurological diseases and to improve vision, cognition, prosthetics, and other pieces of our everyday world.
In three weeks, I'll look at a bevy of local brainiacs who are hooked up to the national effort and other projects that have a tight connection to what we could call neo-neuro land.
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