Hungary’s brain research program looks encouraging
In a single year neurological disorders have cost the European Union EUR 798 billion euros (USD 1,011 billion), which is 1.5 times more than the five next most expensive disorders put together. Tamás Freund, chief of the National Brain Research Program used this comparison to explain the need for more research in this field.
Freund, vice-president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in charge of life-sciences and a Széchenyi prize winner, says that in today’s world our brains are being more stressed out than ever before.
Q: Hungary started the National Brain Research Program (NAP) funded by HUF 12 billion (USD 49 million) early this year. How does it stand at this time?
A: The new laboratories have begun operating and we’ve had enough time to buy the instruments we need and find and hire the right people. But it’s too early to expect any published results. That said, we have done some publishing because some of our labs are really continuing projects they began earlier, and their outcomes have appeared in key journals.
Q: When the project got underway [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán said that brain research could become the flagship of Hungarian innovation. Why do you think he chose your area?
A: To repeat what he said, a small country cannot hope to be tops in all branches of science so it needs to concentrate its resources on a few priority areas. You have to consider three basics when deciding that those areas should be: does it have roots in the country, does it have a present, and is there a social need for it. In other words, what kind of social and economic need is there for work in a given field? Looking at these factors, brain research gets top grades. As far as tradition is concerned, János Szentágothai and his school brought Hungarian neurological research into the European vanguard. Regarding the present, our brain researchers are at the top of EU and other international projects, are published in the most exclusive journals, are quoted throughout the profession, and most recently, in 2011 three Hungarian researchers won the Brain Prize, which many people call neuroscience’s Nobel Prize. And yes, there is both a social and an economic demand for brain research. In one year the European Union spends 798 billion euros on neurological disorders, 1.5 times more than on the five next most expensive illnesses – heart and circulatory system disorders, cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and rheumatic disorders – which come half a billion euros combined.
Q: How come brain problems cost so much?
A: A cancer patient or person suffering a heart attack (MI) may not live long, while a person with an autism spectrum disorder or schizophrenia will live a more or less normal lifespan. A person like this will need continuous medical care and medications, in many cases will require removing a family member from the workforce to care for him/her, and will be such an emotional burden on the family that other members may suffer from depression or another mood disorder because of it. Alzheimer’s disease may become symptomatic at age 65 or 70, but the patient can live for another 20-25 years. During that time he or she will need family support and social services. Depression, anxiety disorders, and panic disorder are spreading like wildfire and the economic costs are inestimable. Hardly any family is completely free of mental disorder.
Q: Brain research projects costing fortunes are getting underway everywhere. How is it that the world only just realized how important they are?
A: Not only are brain-related disorders by far the most expensive ones, but trends are pointing towards an impending catastrophe. As the average lifespan increases so does the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. But, given the vast quantity of information our brains have to process – first brought to it by radio, then by television and now through the Internet – the brain is under more pressure than it can withstand. Adaptation through biological evolution takes thousands or tens of thousands of years, and here we have brought about drastic changes in the brain’s information environment in mere decades.
Q: Can we somehow handle all that?
A: It’s something everyone needs to learn for themselves. I believe that the explosive advance of information and communication technology has a lot to do with the aggressive spread of anxiety disorder, panic disorder, depression, and in some cases even schizophrenia and drug dependence. We need to learn to live with the sources of this vast spring of information, and when gathering information we need to take the time and give the process the emotional input needed to actually learn something. This means broadening the emotional range of our inner worlds and our inner motivation, which should be driven by our curiosity. Information will only be processed into useful knowledge if we stick to this method, which will also help us to avert constant frustration and stress. In personal communications we need to stress quality, not quantity. Internet communication channels, like Facebook, lack emotional triggers while in personal conversations we experience our partners with all of our senses, sometimes subconsciously, and that is what we need for satisfactory emotionally rich communication.
Q: How do you think the Hungarian program will support patients with neurological disorders?
A: The Hungarian program (NAP) rests on five pillars. The first is pure research aimed at discovery. This area is farthest from being immediately useful, but is where we can hope for the biggest breakthroughs, the ones that might even unexpectedly lead to recognizing the causes of a disorder. Every single neural pathway, synapse, and neurochemical in the brain can tell us something that might indirectly lead to a breakthrough.
Q: And the other NAP pillars?
A: The next involves clinical research. This means research and diagnostics into neurological, psychiatric and neurosurgical issues to design targeted and more effective therapies. For instance, this is where we develop deep brain stimulation (DBS) techniques with which we not only can widen the range and perfect Parkinson disease treatment – which we already are doing – but, think for a minute about how we can combat refractory depression or psychiatric issues like obsessive-compulsive disorders. Research conducted at the fMRI center in Pécs is an excellent example of how useful clinical brain research is. Their work has enabled them to distinguish between mild cranial injuries and ones that will lead to serious problems later on. By beginning treatment early enough, the consequences of the latter can be averted. It is also important to pinpoint the specific neuronal targets of new medications, and this is where NAP’s third pillar, pharmaceutical development, comes in.
Q: What’s the situation with infobionics?
A: That’s part of the fourth pillar – neuroscience connected to bio-informatics and biorobotics, a significant portion of which overlaps with the European Human Brain Project. We are developing electrodes, tools, and chips that can be implanted in the brain to help not only learn the mechanisms triggering disorders but also how to halt these unhealthy flows. We can even implant a chip that senses the synchronization of neuronal activity leading to an epileptic seizure before it starts and is able to issue stimuli that inhibits the continued synchronization. In other words, it not only senses an impending seizure but can avert it. The fifth pillar of NAP involves research linked to the social sciences such as neuroethics, health economics, and epidemiology.
Q: What future does Hungarian brain research have?
A: It looks good thanks to the 12 billion forint support. In the very first year of the project we managed to convince 8-10 outstanding Hungarian researchers to come home from abroad. Here they have been able to bring together their own research groups and they are good enough to successfully bid for international grant monies. The start-up of these labs at universities, research centers, and clinics can generate major developments and at the same time set examples for the universities on how to encourage research to flourish in the midst of their educational calling, which means that we support their PhD and practical doctorate programs, helping them to develop the concept of the “research university.”
Q: How do you see the future of research into Alzheimer’s disease?
A: Alzheimer’s disease is not as hard a nut to crack as schizophrenia because we have animal models. We have just started a project using a genetically modified strain of mice we got from Japan. They have been modified with an implanted human gene that causes Alzheimer’s disease. The laboratory animals can help to answer the kind of questions we could not have explored with humans. The mice help us to investigate the various phases of the illness as it develops. About the only time we have access to a human brain with Alzheimer’s disease is post mortem, when we can no longer conduct electro-physiological tests. Schizophrenia is much tougher. We have never come across or been able to produce a rat with schizophrenia, so trying to work or model with animals is very difficult. We have had some encouraging signs, though. We are able to model the various schizophrenia subtypes separately and to conduct experiments. Regarding Alzheimer’s, at least we know which biochemical processes lead to the protein aggregation that, according to what we currently know, appears to be the ultimate cause of the disorder. Now, all we need to figure out is what starts off the amyloid cascade, and I personally think we will have found the cause of that within the next few years.
Q: What do you think of the European Human Brain Project (HBP)?
A: I think it is tremendous! It is supporting a limited but dynamically developing segment of neuroscience that overlaps with information technology. It involves the analysis of brain operation using theoretical mathematics, the computerized modeling and simulation of biological data, the development of computers designed as analogous to the human nervous system, neurorobotics, and the establishment of gigantic databanks searchable for medical diagnostics, etc.
Q: What do you think of the criticism the project has received?
A: The grumbling of scientists who feel they have been left out and that brain research monies are only being spent on bio-informatics research just doesn’t hold water. They are just plain wrong. All other branches of brain research will be getting the same amount of money from the life sciences budget as before. The HBP budget comes from the EU’s IT budget. Our institute has been a member of the HBP consortium since it began, and so we have been receiving funding from it, albeit, the money is rather limited.
Q: What is the Hungarian contribution?
A: As part of other projects we have managed to conduct electric signals from a huge number of neurons. We load these cells with signaling probes which makes it possible to study the neurons morphologically and neurochemically and to reconstruct their axons. Within the framework of the HBP we would like to integrate all nerve cells in a computerized environment that pinpoints their locations, the commonalities of their synaptic terminals, and their activity. We are digitizing these nerve cells and computerizing them. Then we will be sending them off to Lausanne where they will model them. A model is particularly useful because we can ask it the kind of questions that we can’t ask in a biological experiment.
Q: Is it possible to model the human brain?
A: That depends on the goal of the modeling. If we just want to explore a single function and the regions and nerves participating in it, focused only on the essential features and vital functions, then I would say we could. For instance, we already have models of spinal cord reflexes that perfectly describe its operation, even when including all nerve cells involved in its operation. But, if you’re asking whether we can take the hundred billion nerve cells that make up the human brain and model them on a computer in such a way that each one will resemble its corresponding biological cell, the answer is no. That never will be possible, but that’s not what this is all about.
Q: “We would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t.” Stephen Hawking said that recently. What do you think?
A: It’s a pompous statement and my opinion is much like that of the person who responded to a comment by Nietzsche, who wrote “God is dead” (signed: Nietzsche). The response was: “Nietzsche is dead” (signed: God). It isn’t hard to decide which is the more likely. Physicists have verified that if the force of gravity had been just one billionth less than it was at the moment of the Big Bang – and no one can derive why it was exactly as much as it was – the Universe would have been sprayed all over the place. If it had been one billionth stronger, it would have collapsed back onto itself that very first moment. The material world would not exist. There are also other physical constants that we cannot derive from anywhere. If the force within an atomic core were just a billionth less then all that would exist are hydrogen atoms and if it were a billionth more, all there would be is helium. Neither one is suitable for producing the unbelievably rich arsenal of atoms and molecules that exists. I believe in God but think that the atheists’ beliefs are far stronger than mine because they believe in a series of accidental occurrences that is far less likely than the existence of a creative force outside the space-time dimension. That was also inconceivable for Hawking at one time, when he wrote, albeit earlier: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”
Q: So we’ll never reach the point when, as humans, we will have understood everything and be able to explain everything?
A: It’s not likely but a scientist always has to keep pushing the envelope of learning.
Q: This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine went to researchers “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” What’s the practical use of that?
A: Conceptionally, it is of vast significance. They verified that our brains are able to produce an internal cognitive map of the external environment, where the points on the map correspond to the activity of the various neurons. In the early 1970s John O’Keefe discovered that when a rat walks in its cage, different neurons within its hippocampus become activated when it is at different points in the cage. They (the Mosers) also discovered grid cells and place cells. May-Britt and Edvard Moser found what actually pumps the information into the hippocampus, letting the animal know, for instance, what is how far away. These are truly major discoveries and they deserved the Nobel Prize.
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Tamás Freund is a neurobiologist, born in Zirc, Veszprém county, in 1959.
Read the full article in hungarian in the Magyar Nemzet newspaper. Translated source: http://www.budapesttelegraph.com/news/787/hungary’s_brain_research_program_looks_encouraging