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Institute of Medicine (US) Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders. From Molecules to Minds: Challenges for the 21st Century: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2008.

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From Molecules to Minds: Challenges for the 21st Century: Workshop Summary.

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The purpose of a forum at the National Academies is not to come to consensus or make specific recommendations to the public. It is, rather, to foster an open discussion among leading experts in the field; to gather some of the best and brightest around a common topic and see what emerges.

To that end, Leshner proclaimed the workshop a tremendous success. The opportunity to step back and discuss the big issues surrounding neuroscience pulled researchers out of their particular areas of focus and forced them to take a 30,000-foot view of the space. They made it clear that the neurosciences have advanced tremendously over the past 50 years. The progress of the past in combination with new tools and techniques has positioned neuroscience on the cusp of even greater transformational progress in our understanding of the brain and how its activities result in mental activity.

On the Cusp

Neuroscience is on the cusp of exciting breakthroughs that take advantage of the convergence of scientific knowledge and technologies, like Brainbows, neuronal light switches, and computer learning technologies have made it possible to answer questions such as the following:

  • How does the brain work and produce mental activity? How does physical activity in the brain give rise to thought, emotion, and behavior?
  • How does the interplay of biology and experience shape our brains and make us who we are?
  • How do we keep our brains healthy? How do we protect, restore, or enhance the functioning of our brains as we age?

As highlighted during the last panel discussion with Coetzee, Marder, Hyman, Insel, Leshner, Volkow, and Ting Kai Li, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, if there was any debate about the feasibility of answering these questions, there was no debate on this: Doing so would have tremendous benefits to society, easing the suffering of those with disease, helping people age gracefully, and even improving our understanding of issues like learning disabilities and more. It is a classic investment problem—taking money away from the current need to invest in a brighter future, commented Coetzee. However, the advantages gained from understanding the mechanisms of brain function, plasticity, and other topics would lead to step-wise improvements in therapies—improvements that cannot happen any other way.

The challenges will be great, said Landis. Integrating the various fields of neuroscience toward a common goal will be tough, and the field still requires new technological advances and ideas to achieve its goals. It will be a step-wise process, with the benefits taking years or even decades to realize. But with the right injection of new funding and resources, there was a feeling that the potential payoff balanced this load.

“Both NIH and NSF believe that the field [of neuroscience] is now poised on a threshold of major transformational advances,” said Olsen. “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that . . . in the next decade and beyond ‘neuro’ will become the new ‘nano’ in terms of experimental capabilities that are beyond anything we could previously imagine, and discoveries that fire the imagination, achieve great practical advances, and grow the economy.”

Added Olsen: “I think the potential benefits are too enormous to let this opportunity pass.”

I would say, today, 2008, 2009, we are right at a historical cusp. . . .

—Eve Marder

Copyright © 2008, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK50987


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