Patrick Kennedy calls for another moon shot

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., called for Americans to sign on for another “moon shot”—this time to the inner space of the human brain—during a speech at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in San Diego on Monday. [see SfN video of the lecture]

Nearly 50 years ago, his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, challenged Americans to step up and combine forces to send a man to the moon and return him home safely (“moon shot” speech). We have met many of the challenges JFK spelled out to reach that goal, except one, Patrick Kennedy said to a crowd of more than two thousand in the main hall of the San Diego Convention Center. “Our map of the human brain is incomplete, and our ability to treat it is inadequate.”

Part of the reason the original moon shot was successful was its catch-the-imagination focus: sending a human to the moon. In a similar way, Kennedy suggested the single focus for the new inner-space mission should be finding ways to treat the brain-based wounds of returning veterans of wars, including traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They are returning home, but they’re taking their battlefield home with them,” he said. “You the neuroscientists can rescue our injured soldiers, prisoners of war” due to their illness, and held hostage by the stigma that theirs is a mental weakness, not a physiological injury. In the past decade, more soldiers have died from their own hand than from combat, he said, unable to heal their wounds without help and not getting much support. “It’s a win for the terrorists when a veteran dies at home,” he said.

KennedyPatrick Kennedy speaks at an event in 2008. (Credit: patrickkennedy.house.gov)

The price many veterans pay is high, and they don’t always get the forms of treatment they deserve. For example, Kennedy said, 15 percent of convicts entering prisons today are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people who likely have untreated mental disorders, “a criminal-justice statistic versus a health-care statistic.” We have the duty to help those who fight our battles for us, he said.

As well, focusing research on helping veterans doesn’t just help them and their families, but can help everyone, Kennedy said. For example, veterans with TBI and similar injuries show signs of earlier dementias, including Alzheimer’s; studies that would help them could also help the hundreds of thousands of other aging Americans who are at risk for those diseases.

His first step is to organize the Next Frontier Conference, where scientists, politicians, patients, and families can work together to “hasten the development of treatments and cures for neurological disorders.” The conference will be May 23-25, 2011, in Boston; learn more at www.moonshot.org (video and loud audio starts as page loads in some browsers). He asked all the scientists in the audience to sign a petition-like “Articles of Affiliation for the Next Frontier,” declaring that “the time is now for a bold, coordinated approach to brain disorder research uniting the nation’s scientists and laboratories.”

Kennedy has long been an advocate for brain research and for people with brain disorders. “My own experience has given me insights … and made me a better advocate,” he said. He has sought treatment for bipolar disorder and substance abuse, and cited other cases of mental illness in his family. He announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election, but said he would continue his campaign for parity for people who need mental-illness treatment and its eventual inclusion in standard healthcare plans instead of the current add-on plans. “The brain is our next frontier,” he said. “This is our cause, and it’s personal to me.”

I felt a little buffeted by the speech; on the one hand uplifted at the idea we might all come together to unlock the mysteries of the brain and find ways to heal it (and make a “GPS for the human brain”), and on the other terrified by all the angry war imagery and the idea that science is a battle. But on a practical level, using war imagery and targeting work towards veterans is the only likely way to get increased funding for brain research; while other, health-based, federal budgets are frozen or shrinking, the budget for our military continues to grow.

 “We must all be of one mind when it comes to brain research,” Kennedy said, drawing the biggest round of applause from the audience.

–Nicky Penttila

One response

  1. Former Speaker of the House Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill was famous for saying, “All politics is local.” I think Patrick Kennedy pinpoints this concept further to “All politics is personal.” When an issue hits home, people become engaged and policy moves forward. It sounds like Mr. Kennedy’s call for making the brain the next frontier is resonating in the community.

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