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KEY TAKEAWAYS

•   Popular interest in neuroscience vastly exceeds the current scientific understanding of the brain, giving rise to overhyped claims in the public domain that revolutionary advances are just around the corner. 

•   Advances in computing have led to progress in several areas, including understanding and treating addiction and neurodegenerative diseases, and designing brain-machine interfaces. 

•   American leadership is essential for establishing and upholding global norms about ethics and human subjects research in neuroscience. 

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Overview

NEUROENGINEERING
 

A brain-machine interface is a device that maps neural impulses from the brain to a computer and vice versa. There are many potential applications for this technology: sensory replacement or augmentation, replacement of severed limbs, direct mind-to-computer interfacing, or even computer assisted memory recall and cognition. For example, for people with incurable blindness, brain-machine interfaces could allow for video captured from a digital camera to be interpreted by the brain, allowing them to “see” again. However, despite headlines about mind-reading chip implants, there are still exceptionally few areas of the brain for which we have the necessary theoretical understanding of how neurocircuits work. We also have not solved technical problems related to safely implanting electrodes in the brain.

NEUROHEALTH
 

Neurodegeneration is a major challenge as humans continue to live longer. In the United States alone, the annual cost of Alzheimer’s treatment is projected to explode from $305 billion today to $1 trillion by 2050. While current treatments for Alzheimer’s are less effective than would be desired given decades of research, there is reason for cautious optimism in the coming years. Gene therapy drugs, which target genes that cause Alzheimer’s, have recently entered clinical trials. Powerful diagnostic tools like PET scans for early detection and advances in personalized medicine also leave clinicians hopeful. 

NEURODISCOVERY
 

Understanding the science of the brain might also reveal the neural basis of addiction and chronic pain, which would be helpful in tackling the opioid epidemic. Identifying the neural basis of chronic pain will allow for new preventative therapies which would alleviate a significant driver of opioid use. Neuroscience is also identifying brain mechanisms involved in relapse. This is potentially useful in both finding effective treatments and identifying individuals who are more likely to relapse and are in greater need of these therapies. 

Over the Horizon

Neuroscience applications like artificial retinas and antiaddiction drugs have a dual-pronged nature. First, the relevant brain circuits and mechanisms of function must be identified via basic research. Second, those circuits must be safely stimulated via engineering and biotech solutions. Academia is much better suited than industry to solving basic biological questions in neuroscience. However, once the basic science has been developed and a research area approaches an economically viable application, industry does a much better job. Consequently, smoothing out the friction involved in moving from academia to industry is crucial to overcoming roadblocks in development. Incubators and accelerators can help transition the findings of basic research to application by aiding in high-throughput screening—the use of automated equipment to rapidly test samples—and prototyping.

Neuroscience research naturally raises several ethical concerns. Chief among them is human subjects research. Many existing frameworks and regulations guide neuroscience research in American academia today. However, ethical guidelines are usually national, not international, and thus managing differences in research regimes will be critical to harnessing the power of international collaboration. 

Report Preview: Neuroscience

Faculty Council Advisor

Kang Shen
Kang Shen
Author
Kang Shen

Kang Shen is the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor of biology and professor of pathology at Stanford University, where he serves as the Vincent V. C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and affiliated faculty at Stanford Bio-X. His research focuses on neuronal cell biology and developmental neuroscience. He has authored or coauthored more than one hundred journal articles. He received his PhD in cell biology from Duke University.

View Bio
Kang Shen
Kang Shen

Kang Shen is the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor of biology and professor of pathology at Stanford University, where he serves as the Vincent V. C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and affiliated faculty at Stanford Bio-X. His research focuses on neuronal cell biology and developmental neuroscience. He has authored or coauthored more than one hundred journal articles. He received his PhD in cell biology from Duke University.

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