From the Archives: Funding Scientific Research

Leon Cooper in 2007. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel

Leon Cooper in 2007. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel

More than 16 years ago, Cerebrum published an essay by Leon Cooper, Nobel prize-winning physicist and a member of the executive committee of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, on the monetary state of the field then, called “Scientific Research: Who Benefits? Who Pays?” Has anything changed?

In 1998, the annual direct and indirect costs of brain-related illnesses in the U.S. was estimated at $600 billion, writes Cooper. The figure now is $760 billion; worldwide, the WHO has estimated costs at $3 trillion and increasing. Continue reading

Cerebral Malaria: A Wily Foe…8 Years Later

guest post by Kayt Sukel

With today’s headlines awash with tales of measles and the Ebola virus, it can be easy to forget that malaria, an infectious disease caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum, remains one of the most deadly diseases on the planet. According to the World Health Organization, more than 600,000 people died of malaria in 2012—the majority attributed to the most severe form of the disease, cerebral malaria. One of malaria’s biggest mysteries is why some people develop the cerebral form of the disease, in which the malarial parasites invade the blood vessels around the brain, and then recover, while others with this form, many of them young children, will die of the infection.

Dr. Terrie Taylor, Michigan State University, takes vitals on a child in the pediatric malaria ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, Africa. Photo by Jim Peck, MSU

Dr. Terrie Taylor, Michigan State University, takes vitals on a child in the pediatric malaria ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, Africa. Photo by Jim Peck, MSU

In 2008, I spoke with Terrie Taylor, DO, about her clinical work with cerebral malaria patients in Malawi. She explained how cerebral malaria is a “tricky disease,” but was optimistic that researchers would have a clearer picture of how Plasmodium falciparum occupy the brain’s blood vessels in five to ten years. One of her most important goals was to understand what might be different in the brains of those who died of the disease from those who survived. Now, eight years after my Cerebrum story “Cerebral Malaria:  A Wily Foe” was published, Taylor and colleagues have published a groundbreaking neuroimaging study in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighting one of those key differences.

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Dreamweavers

Despite enormous strides in our understanding of the brain over the last few decades, lectures and panel discussions featuring neuroscientists regularly conclude with the following admission: the more we learn, the more we realize how far we are from definitive answers. In a Brainwave discussion between actor Jake Gyllenhaal and neuroscientist Moran Cerf on the impact of dreams, that often-repeated refrain was reaffirmed as the duo waxed philosophical and queried each other on various aspects of what Freud called “the road to the unconscious mind.”

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Brain Games: Ten Years Away

When I first became editor of Cerebrum two years ago, I pitched an article about the effectiveness of brain games to my advisory board. Too soon, they suggested, because there aren’t enough good studies to support one.

That struck me as curious, since a look on Lumosity’s website revealed nine peer-reviewed studies, 36 university collaborators, and testimonials galore. Lumosity is the largest company in a brain-game business that is estimated at $1.3 billion a year.K-November-Brain Games

Three months ago the board finally greenlighted the idea for an article, on the condition that I could find a recognized authority with a track record in cognition and aging to write it. I invited Arthur F. Kramer, Ph.D., director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & technology and the Swanlund Chair and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois. He accepted and suggested he collaborate with research colleague Walter R. Boot, Ph.D., an associate professor at Florida State University. The result is this month’s Cerebrum article, “The Brain Games Conundrum: Does Cognitive Training Really Sharpen the Mind?” (A Q&A with the authors will post on the Dana Foundation website on Monday).

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Scientific Community Comes Out Against ‘Brain Game’ Marketing

Guest post by science writer Kayt Sukel

A few years ago, I was asked to write an article about the science behind “brain games,” or computer games designed to help improve cognitive function, for a popular magazine. I spoke with a variety of scientists—including those involved with companies that were marketing these games—and also examined the (quite small number) of studies that had been published on brain game efficacy. Taken together, my piece concluded that was that there was no hard and fast evidence, to date, that brain games worked as advertised. Citing the lack of a magic bullet for aging-related cognitive decline, the editor of the magazine killed my story, saying that it felt “too negative.”  The magazine’s readership, she told me, wanted to be able to “do something” about keeping age-related memory and attention problems at bay.

Who wouldn’t? Many brain training companies make bold claims about the games’ effects–suggesting that just a few minutes on the computer each day could slow cognitive decline and keep neurodegeneration at bay. With that kind of messaging, it’s easy to see why the programs have become so popular. Yet, while these supposedly “scientific” claims lack evidentiary basis, few scientists have come out publicly against them.

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