Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman
Within the brain’s complexity is the diversity of its 10 billion neurons: large, small, thin, fat, connected by long fibrils or short bushy ones. Some produce the neurotransmitter serotonin; others dopamine or norepinephrine. How this abundance of forms arises is a mystery we are just starting to penetrate.
It’s of more than mere theoretical interest, says Minoree Kohwi, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. “Knowing how the brain is built, piece by piece, from the ground up, may give critical clues as to what goes wrong to cause diseases, and ultimately help us prevent or cure them.” It may even, someday, allow us to make neurons to replace those lost to injury or aging.
Dana Alliance member Gary Landreth, Ph.D., is a professor of neurosciences and neurology and the director of the Alzheimer Research Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In recognition of National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, he spoke to us about his career, clinical trials, and the pressures to find answers to the Alzheimer’s puzzle.
What interested you about Alzheimer’s research?
I was recruited to my present job specifically because I had not previously worked on Alzheimer’s disease (AD). That was thought to be a virtue. My independent scientific career was focused on how growth factors elicit their effects in neurons. I moved to the newly established Alzheimer Research Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University in 1989 to investigate how growth factors might impact AD pathogenesis and whether they might represent a therapeutic approach to the disease. My research gravitated to the study of the innate immune responses in the brain. Specifically, we investigate how microglia respond to amyloid accumulation and promote its clearance. This remains the focus of work in the lab.
Why was it an advantage that you hadn’t worked on AD before?
Scientific research can be a lonely business. Labs and studies are collaborative, but the work is task driven, and results often take a year or two. For researchers, communication mostly means talking to like-minded lab partners or collaborators in pursuit of similar goals or outcomes.
But communicating brain research in compelling and creative ways to the tax-paying public and, even more importantly, to decision-makers, is viewed as crucial—especially in the ever-competitive grant and funding climate. That was a significant part of the message in a well-attended professional development workshop at this year’s Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C. The workshop featured four experienced science communicators: Elaine Snell, Tiffany Lohwater, Jane Nevins, and Stuart Firestein, Ph.D.
“Communicating science is not just the noble thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said adolescent brain expert Jay Giedd, M.D., at Saturday’s annual Brain Awareness Week reception at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting. Dr. Giedd, below, the recipient of SfN’s Science Educator Award in 2012, was alluding to the fact that in order for the public to want to invest in brain research, they have to be able to understand its benefits.
Can human rights principles and neuroethics become more integrated in future discourse?
During the final panel of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting, moderator Stephen Marks, from the Harvard School of Public Health, noted the absence of the human rights framework from key literature in the neuroethics field, and challenged the panelists to address this gap and identify areas where neuroscience and human rights overlap.