The McGovern Institute for Brain Research was founded in 2000 in response to what I believe is the preeminent scientific challenge of our time – understanding how the brain gives rise to the mind. Neuroscience as a distinct discipline is only a few decades old, but it is already addressing deep questions about human existence that were until recently the province of philosophers alone. What is the origin of consciousness? How do we know the external world? What is memory? What aspects of our identities do we share, and in what ways do we differ from each other?
Remarkably, we can now pose these questions in scientific terms, knowing that the answers must reside within a three-pound organ inside our skulls. It is in the brain, too, that we must look for the origins of many of our most debilitating diseases, including developmental disorders such as autism; psychiatric diseases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
My background as Director of Intramural Research at the National Institute of Mental Health has impressed upon me the urgency of finding effective treatments for people suffering from brain disorders. Our understanding of these conditions lags far behind that of most other diseases, and the available treatments are often woefully inadequate.
What we need is not simply more ‘me-too’ drugs, but new therapeutic approaches that are based on a fundamental understanding of brain mechanisms. Our translational efforts must therefore rest on a strong foundation of basic discovery research, which has always been the engine that drives new practical applications. Enhancing our basic research capability is one of my central goals for the McGovern Institute, because only through deeper understanding of the brain systems disrupted by disease can we hope to develop better therapies.
Fortunately, we can now study the brain in ways that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. For example, powerful new imaging technologies are giving us unprecedented view of how genes and experience interact within the brain, and new genetic tools allow us to manipulate brain activity with extraordinary precision. I am more optimistic than ever before that these advances will pave the way to new treatments – not just drugs, but perhaps also implantable devices and other therapeutic approaches as yet unimagined.
What will drive this continued progress? Technologies such as genetics and neuroimaging are important, but no single approach can succeed alone. Our challenge is to bridge the gap from molecules to mind, and to do this we must study the brain at many levels, using many different technologies. It is not sufficient to study the parts in isolation – we must study how they work together to create the whole.
Likewise, a successful brain research institute must be more than the sum of its individual laboratories. Researchers with diverse expertise must transcend traditional disciplinary barriers if they are to collaborate effectively in pursuit of a common goal. I came to the McGovern Institute as Director in 2004 to foster this multidisciplinary approach, and I am gratified at how the Institute has grown into a thriving, interactive community. I am privileged to work with such a distinguished group of researchers, and we are all deeply grateful to the many donors whose support makes our work possible. I invite you to share our pride in our field’s accomplishments and our optimism for the future.
Robert Desimone, PhD
Image: Kent Dayton