Washington, DC Event Highlights Support for Research Funding
The science behind brain plasticity focused a Capitol Hill audience of congressional representatives and staff on the importance of funding scientific research during difficult budget times. In late September, with the possibility of a government shutdown looming, neuroscientists briefed policy makers about brain science, and why continued research is essential.
The presentation “It’s Nature and Nurture: How Your Brain Shapes Your Experience and Your Experiences Shape Your Brain,” featured Adam Gazzaley, associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and John Morrison, professor of neuroscience at the graduate school of biomedical sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. The researchers discussed current and future studies that would not be possible without adequate funding sources. The event was hosted by the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, the American Brain Coalition, and the Society for Neuroscience.
More than 1,000 brain-based diseases affect an estimated 1 billion people worldwide and are a “tremendous burden to those with the disease, their families and society,’’ Morrison said. “People say we can’t afford the research, but we can’t afford to not do the research.”
Gazzaley described his work on plasticity in older people (ages 60-85) who showed improved memory and sustained attention skills after several weeks of playing a video game developed in his lab. Participants in Gazzaley’s study were better able to multitask than people in their 20s who didn’t play the game. The findings were featured on the cover of the journal Nature in September.
“None of this would have been possible without the funding I got along the way,’’ said Gazzaley.
Twenty years ago, Gazzaley trained in Morrison’s lab, and became his postdoctoral advisee. At that time, Morrison assured Gazzaley that research funding for brain science was available. “I always knew Adam would be successful. He’d say to me ‘How will I get grants (to do research)?’ I told him he would and he did, but at the current funding levels I can’t be as definitive when I talk to my young students.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget was cut 5.5 percent by sequestration that went into effect in March, resulting in approximately 700 fewer grants overall in the last fiscal year. Many scientists are reporting delays and setbacks in lab research as a result of federal government cuts.
Morrison described his work on the molecular and structural attributes of synapses, and how they change during aging. “We’re in the early stages of understanding but we know that the number of receptors in a synapse decreases with age, and that can have a negative effect on memory,” Morrison said. With more research on how to protect the synapses and prevent neuron death, Morrison continued, some cognitive disease processes could be delayed or even prevented and billions of dollars could be saved annually.
“If you wait for Alzheimer’s to occur, it’s too late,’’ Morrison said. “If you intervene and protect the synapses, you might push back Alzheimer’s five years.”
Delaying Alzheimer’s would save the nation an estimated $100 billion a year in costs spent on caring for the 5 million people with the disease, according to Morrison.
Reps. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) both donned gloves after the briefing to hold a human brain, as part of a demonstration by Benjamin Walker, a pre- clinical science facilitator with the GEMS program at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Congressional staff also took part in activities illustrating how the brain changes in response to experiences.
The Society for Neuroscience is a nonprofit membership organization of nearly 42,000 scientists and physicians who study the brain and nervous system.
The Congressional Neuroscience Caucus is a bipartisan caucus that promotes awareness of neuroscience research and findings and develops legislation to advance neuroscience research. Caucus co-chairs are Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).