TIME neuroscience

Alzheimer’s Protein Found in Young Brains for the First Time

The brain-damaging protein in Alzheimer’s disease may start accumulating as early as in our 20s

For the first time, scientists have found evidence of a protein found in Alzheimer’s disease, called amyloid, in the brains of people as young as 20.

In a report published in the journal Brain, Changiz Geula, a professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, reveals that the protein—which gradually builds up and forms sticky plaques in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease—starts appearing early in life. Amyloid is normally made by the brain and has important functions; it’s an antioxidant and promotes the brain’s ability to remain adaptable by forming new connections and reinforcing old ones, especially those involving memory. But in some people, the proteins start to clump together with age, forming sticky masses that interfere with normal nerve function. Eventually, these masses kill neurons by starving them of their critical nutrients and their ability to communicate with other cells.

MORE: New Research on Understanding Alzheimer’s

When Geula compared the autopsy brains from normal people between ages 20-66 years, older people without dementia between 70-99 years, and people with Alzheimer’s between 60-95 years, they found evidence of amyloid in a particular part of the brain in all of them. That region isn’t normally studied in Alzheimer’s, but it plays roles in memory and attention.

The results show that the process responsible for causing Alzheimer’s begins as early as in the 20s, and it also pointed to a population of cells that are especially vulnerable to accumulating amyloid—essentially serving as a harbinger of future disease. “There is some characteristic of these neurons that allows amyloid to accumulate there more than in other neurons,” says Geula. “At least in this cell population, the machinery to form aggregates is there.” Reducing the amount of amyloid in the brains of young people might help halt the formation of Alzheimer’s, he says.

MORE: This Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Could Be a Game Changer

Because the study involved autopsy specimens, there’s no way to tell whether those younger individuals would have gone on to develop Alzheimer’s. But they provide a clue about the early steps behind the disease.

They may also shed light on one way to prevent, or at least minimize, the effects of Alzheimer’s. Experts currently believe that the memory-robbing condition occurs when the balance between the production of amyloid and processes that clear the protein from the brain veer out of balance with age. As more amyloid is left in the brain, it tends to become stickier and adhere to other amyloid fragments, eventually forming damaging plaques. Geula believes that even in people with a genetic predisposition to forming these sticky plaques, removing amyloid as early as possible can slow down the progression of the disease. While there aren’t any effective ways to do this yet, there are promising compounds currently being tested in clinical trials. And given Geula’s findings, those studies become even more critical as a way to help more people to treat and even prevent the disease.

MORE: New Test May Predict Alzheimer’s 10 Years Before Diagnosis

The key, as the findings show, is to start early. “If you can get rid of the background [amyloid], then it can’t do anything,” says Geula.

TIME neuroscience

Three Guys in Austria Have Basically Become Cyborgs After Getting Robotic Hands

The bionic hand allows the patients to perform everyday activities

Robotic hands have been successfully attached to three amputees in Austria, using a new technique that allows the users to control their electronic limbs with their minds.

The operations were completed by using an innovative procedure called bionic reconstruction, which connects prostheses directly to a patient’s nerves, according to a study in British medical journal The Lancet.

The procedure first involves intense cognitive training to prepare the body and mind for the advanced robotic prosthesis, followed by elective amputation and replacement. Once attached, the bionic hand allows all three patients to perform everyday activities, like using kitchen utensils and opening doors.

“So far, bionic reconstruction has only been done in our center in Vienna,” said Professor Oskar Aszmann from the Medical University of Vienna. “However, there are no technical or surgical limitations that would prevent this procedure from being done in centers with similar expertise and resources.”

[Science Daily]

TIME neuroscience

A Simple Skin Test May Detect Alzheimer’s

There’s new hope that the first signs of these brain disorders may lie in the skin

Detecting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as early as possible is critical. But while doctors know that the conditions can start 15 to 20 years before the symptoms appear, there aren’t many reliable ways of pinpointing exactly when that occurs. Now, scientists led by Dr. Ildefonso Rodriguez-Leyva at Central Hospital in University of San Luis Potosi in Mexico report that the skin may hold the clue to such early detection.

MORE Early Warning: Detecting Alzheimer’s in the Blood and Brain Before Memory Loss

In a study that will be presented in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Rodriguez-Leyva found that compared to healthy patients and those with age-related dementia, patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases had seven times higher levels of an altered form of a protein called tau in skin biopsies, and Parkinson’s patients also showed seven to eight times greater levels of a harmful version of another protein known as alpha-synuclein. Researchers aren’t sure what alpha-synuclein’s role is in the brain, but in Parkinson’s patients, it tends to clump into harmful aggregates that interrupt normal nerve function. Tau is involved in the brain decline associated with Alzheimer’s; as nerve cells die, the normally aligned molecules of tau, which function like railroad tracks to transport nutrients, collapse, twisting into unorganized masses of tangled protein.

“This skin test opens the possibility to see abnormal proteins in the skin before central nervous system symptoms — cognitive or motor deficits — appear,” Rodriguez-Leyva says.

MORE New Research on Understanding Alzheimer’s

Rodriguez-Leyva turned to the skin to look for signs of the altered brain proteins since the skin and brain share a common embryonic origin; while everyone makes the two proteins, those who go on to develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s seem to be especially vulnerable to having them fold in abnormal ways and stick together in damaging masses in the brain. If there were genetic signals dictating these sticky forms of the proteins, he speculated, then those signals might be detectable in the skin as well. “The ectoderm originates the nervous tissue and the skin,” he writes in an email to TIME discussing the study. “Our idea is that they have a similar program of protein expression. Therefore the skin could reflect events taking place in the nervous system.”

MORE New Test May Predict Alzheimer’s 10 Years Before Diagnosis

The study involved only a few dozen patients — 20 with Alzheimer’s, 16 Parkinson’s patients and 17 with age-related dementia, who were compared to 12 healthy controls — so more work needs to be done to confirm the findings. But the results hint that it may be possible to detect these neurodegenerative conditions sooner, and it also provides drug developers with more confidence that targeting abnormal forms of tau and alpha-synuclein may lead to effective treatments.

Read next: America’s Pain Killer Problem is Growing, Federal Data Shows

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TIME Aging

Famed Scientist Oliver Sacks Reveals He Has Terminal Cancer in Soulful Op-Ed

The Music Has Power Awards Benefit
Brad Barket—Getty Images Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at the Music Has Power Awards Benefit in the Allen Room at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center on Nov. 6, 2006 in New York City.

The neurologist and author writes in the New York Times that he feels "intensely alive" in the face of death

Oliver Sacks, one of the leading public intellectuals of the last half-century, says terminal cancer of the liver has left him with only months to live.

Sacks, a neurologist and author of books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, revealed his condition in an article about facing death that was published in the New York Times on Thursday.

“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” Sacks, 81, writes in the Times. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

He says he will shun politics and nightly news to focus instead on himself, his friends, and his work–an autobiography is set to come out in the spring, and he says he has “several” other books in the works. He writes:

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Born in the U.K., Sacks has spent most of his career in the United States, where his prolific writing has blended science and literature to best-selling success. Outside of work, he’s been nearly as active. A one-time weightlifting champion with a stint riding with Hell’s Angel’s—according to a 1995 profile in TIME—he says he still swims a mile a day.

The removal of a tumor in his eye left him blind in one eye nine years ago and led to his 2010 book ‘The Mind’s Eye’ that deals in part with his experience with cancer and his inability to recognize faces. But the tumor metastasized, and the author now says the cancer’s spread cannot be stopped.

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight,” he writes.

Read Oliver Sacks’s story in the New York Times.

Read next: The Secret of Abraham Lincoln’s Success as a Writer?

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TIME public health

Even More Bad News For Young Football Players

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Former NFL players performed below expectations for their age groups on cognitive assessments

Professional football players who began playing tackle football before age 12 experienced more dramatic cognitive decline as adults than their counterparts who begin playing later in life, found a new study in the journal Neurology. Overall, former NFL players in the study performed below expectations for their age groups on cognitive assessments.

“As a society we need to question whether we should sanction and condone allowing our children at a young age to having their brains be jostled about inside their skulls hundreds of times per season,” says study author Robert A. Stern, a professor at Boston University.

The study tested 42 former NFL players who were experiencing brain function issues on their ability to remember a list of words, solve problems requiring mental flexibility and read and pronounce uncommon words. Athletes who began playing before age 12 performed significantly worse than their late-starting counterparts on all measures.

MORE: The Tragic Risks of American Football

The results challenge a common misconception that young people are likely fine if they aren’t experiencing full-blown concussions or dramatic injuries. Repeated hits sustained by children under 12, even if they’re not traumatic, may also affect the brain’s structure and function, the study suggests.

“For me, the biggest concern in long-term consequences is not concussion, but rather sub-concussive exposure,” says Stern. “We need to continue anything and everything possible to reduce the number of hits.”

Stern describes the findings as “robust” but noted the study’s limitations. For one, focusing solely on NFL players makes it impossible to generalize the findings to all athletes, or even all football players. Still, he says, the notion that tackle football poses the risk of brain damage just makes “logical sense.”

MORE: Football Head Impacts Can Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

The study, released just days before the Super Bowl, adds to a growing body of evidence on the dangers of the sport, particularly for young people. A 2012 Virginia Tech study, for instance, tracked accelerometers in the helmets of youth football players ages 7 and 8 and found that the average player received 107 impacts throughout the course of the season, some at speeds equivalent to a car accident. Parents have responded to the mounting research by questioning whether their kids should play the sport at all. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of children ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football declined by more than 25%.

TIME Science

Dogs Can Get Dementia Too

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Dogs are living longer — and a veterinarian finds himself diagnosing canine dementia at least once a day

Zeigfield waddled, rather than walked, into my examination room. I had been seeing this obese Dachshund at my veterinary hospital for most of his 17 years, treating many of the common ailments of the breed: back problems, mild skin disease, and regular episodes of what veterinarians tactfully refer to as “dietary indiscretion” (in Zeigfield’s case, eating a batch of chocolate chip cookies, part of an old sock, and a half bottle of his owner’s Prozac). But today’s visit was different. “He just hasn’t been himself for the past several months,” his owner Carol reported. “He seems restless at night, but mostly he just lays around. He doesn’t play his old games anymore. There isn’t any single issue, but he just isn’t right.”

Further questioning revealed that there actually was a single issue that prompted the visit: Zeigfield had been urinating and defecating indoors, despite being well house-trained since puppyhood. After ruling out most of the possible physical causes, I told Carol that her dog was likely developing cognitive dysfunction syndrome, the most common type of dementia in dogs.

Pets’ lives are different now than when I started my veterinary practice 40 years ago. Dogs are no longer allowed to run freely outside to be hit by cars, fight with other animals, or eat out of garbage cans. The quality of our dog foods is considerably better, and we have controlled the mostly deadly infectious diseases. Dogs’ lifestyles are safe but sedentary, leading to longer lives and more chronic conditions like obesity, arthritis, and cognitive dysfunction—which I find myself diagnosing almost daily at the Southern California veterinary hospitals where I practice.

People are often surprised that their pets can develop something similar to the Alzheimer’s Disease we see in humans, but our brains are not that different from dogs’. When your dog greets you, the same parts of the dog’s brain sends sensory input to the hippocampus, where memory connections are forged. Just beside the hippocampus sits the amygdala, which links the memories passed on from the hippocampus to emotions (like joy at your homecoming) and refers these feelings to the neural systems that initiate activity. Various parts of the cerebral cortex sort these impulses and modify them so that they are appropriate. This how the sound of the owner’s car pulling into the driveway tells your dog an affectionate greeting, a long walk, and, of course, dinner are on their way.

The cellular changes of canine cognitive dysfunction would be recognizable under the microscope to any human brain pathologist: Plaques of beta amyloid—protein fragments believed to be the result of “oxidative stress”—lead to distinctive “neurofibrillary tangles” within the damaged nerve cells, and shrinkage of the brain appears in areas where memories are made and behaviors are shaped.

Some things are different between our species, of course. Fido doesn’t forget where he put his car keys. But he may not remember which door he uses to go out to the yard. The same inability to evaluate behavioral appropriateness may prompt a person with dementia to disrobe in public, or a dog with dementia to eliminate in the house without hesitation. Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction wander restlessly all evening in a manner reminiscent of the “sundown syndrome” of Alzheimer’s patients. And most significantly, finding familiar surroundings strangely unfamiliar often triggers anxiety and agitation.

When I explain such anxiety to owners of senile dogs, I often refer to a scene in the movie On Golden Pond, in which Henry Fonda’s character leaves the house to pick strawberries and returns a few minutes later, shaking and distraught. “Nothing was familiar, not one damn tree,” he says. “I was scared half to death.”

As with many of the dogs I treat, Sterling, a 14-year-old Labrador retriever from El Cajon, was dealing with dementia along with other health problems. He had recently lost most of his hearing, and arthritic hips made it difficult for him to rise from his favorite sleeping spot. Sterling spent hours every night panting and whining. Once he got to his feet, he could move fairly well. But as soon as he left the house for a walk around the neighborhood, he pulled nervously at the leash to get back into the house, where he would pant and tremble for the next hour. Sterling’s owners felt that he was suffering, and they had started to consider euthanasia.

Once a dog’s cognition deteriorates, it loses the ability to compensate for discomfort, and the dog’s suffering becomes compounded by anxiety. This is the point at which most compassionate owners I’ve dealt with have made the difficult decision to euthanize their long-time companion. Although dementia is almost never fatal on its own, cognitive dysfunction and physical health problems are a debilitating combination.

I told Sterling’s owners we could treat the low thyroid condition that was diminishing his hearing and potentially find more effective treatments for his hip arthritis. We could lessen his distress with the same antidepressant medications given to humans. But I couldn’t offer any honest reassurance of dramatic improvement.

Treatments for canine dementia are most effective when they are started before the signs of cognitive dysfunction start to show. This is equally true in humans, which is why researchers are working on tests to predict Alzheimer’s long before symptoms appear. A number of nutritional supplements (particularly DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) and various antioxidants have been shown to slow the progression of mental decline. S-AdenosylMethionine (SAMe) is an over-the-counter supplement that provides mild help for old brains. There is even an FDA-approved medication to treat canine cognitive dysfunction: Seleginine is a derivative of a drug used in human Parkinson’s Disease. In my personal experience I have not seen dramatic results with this medication, but it is usually prescribed in the later stages of dementia, when it may be “too little, too late.”

We can also borrow from the extensive research that has been done in humans and laboratory animals, which find that eating a healthy diet (high in omega-3), staying mentally active, and getting lots of aerobic exercise can delay the onset of senile dementia. The exact amount of exercise that is required to delay senility in dogs has yet to be studied, but my personal experience has been that when I see one of my canine patients who is still alert and happy at 15 years old, the dog’s owner invariably tell me, “He has always gotten out on his walks every day, no matter what.”

When we are in the middle of our busy lives, old age seems far away, and taking steps to delay senile dementia (for our dogs or ourselves) isn’t a priority. There is even a certain unspoken acknowledgment that old age and a weak mind are inexorably linked. It isn’t until your graying canine companion is anxiously pacing the house at midnight or your mother forgets your name that you think you’d do anything possible to bring back the memory and comprehension that has been lost. Something to think about while you take a long walk with your dog.

Lee Harris, who holds a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, has been taking care of pets for 40 years in the San Diego and Seattle areas. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Science

This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain

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Actively learning to play an instrument can help a child's academic achievement

There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.

Science has shown that when children learn to play music, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This helps them develop “neurophysiological distinction” between certain sounds that can aid in literacy, which can translate into improved academic results for kids.

Many parents probably read the above sentence and started mentally Google-ing child music classes in their local area. But if your kid doesn’t like learning an instrument or doesn’t actively engage in the class–opting to stare at the wall or doodle in a notebook instead of participating–he or she may not be getting all the benefits of those classes anyway.

A new study from Northwestern University revealed that in order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them. They have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class. “Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement — attendance and class participation — predicted the strength of neural processing after music training,” said Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email to TIME. She co-authored the study with Jane Hornickel, Dana L. Strait, Jessica Slater and Elaine Thompson of Northwestern University.

Additionally, the study showed that students who played instruments in class had more improved neural processing than the children who attended the music appreciation group. “We like to say that ‘making music matters,'” said Kraus. “Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”

Kraus, whose research appeared today in Frontiers in Psychology, continued: “Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain.” Active participation and meaningful engagement translate into children being highly involved in their musical training–these are the kids who had good attendance, who paid close attention in class, “and were the most on-task during their lesson,” said Kraus.

To find these results, Kraus’s team went straight to the source, hooking up strategically placed electrode wires on the students’ heads to capture the brain’s responses.

Kraus’s team at Northwestern has teamed up with The Harmony Project, a community music program serving low-income children in Los Angeles, after Harmony’s founder approached Kraus to provide scientific evidence behind the program’s success with students.

According to The Harmony Project’s website, since 2008, 93 percent of Harmony Project seniors have gone on to college, despite a dropout rate of 50 percent or more in their neighborhoods. It’s a pretty impressive achievement and the Northwestern team designed a study to explore those striking numbers. That research, published in September in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

As a follow up, the team decided to test whether the level of engagement in that music training actually matters. Turns out, it really does. Researchers found that after two years, children who not only regularly attended music classes, but also actively participated in the class, showed larger improvements in how the brain processes speech and reading scores than their less-involved peers.

“It turns out that playing a musical instrument is important,” Kraus said, differentiating her group’s findings from the now- debunked myth that just listening to certain types of music improves intelligence, the so-called “Mozart effect.” “We don’t see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument,” said Kraus. “I like to give the analogy that you’re not going to become physically fit just by watching sports.” It’s important to engage with the sound in order to reap the benefits and see changes in the central nervous system.

As to how to keep children interested in playing instruments, that’s up to the parents. “I think parents should follow their intuitions with respect to keeping their children engaged,” said Kraus. “Find the kind of music they love, good teachers, an instrument they’ll like. Making music should be something that children enjoy and will want to keep doing for many years!”

With that in mind, it’s not too late to trade in those Minecraft Legos, Frozen paraphernalia, XBox games, and GoldieBlox presents that you may have purchased, and swap them out for music lessons for the kids in your life.

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TIME Sports

Football Head Impacts Can Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

Tetra Images - Erik Isakson—Getty Images/Brand X

New study looks at high school athletes

As the world mourns the loss of Ohio State University football player Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead in an apparent suicide on Nov. 30, concerns about the long term effects of head injuries sustained by footballers continue to mount. A day after Karageorge’s death, a study has been released that suggests sports-related head impacts can cause changes in the brain even when there are no outward signs of a concussion.

In fact, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., say some high school football players in the study exhibited measurable brain changes after a single season of play, even in the absence of concussion.

The Wake Forest team, lead by Dr. Christopher Whitlow, focused on youth players, a group that until now had been widely overlooked in the research into the effects of the repetitive head impacts associated with a typical season of football. “For every one NFL player, there are 2,000 youth players. That’s close to four million youth players and the vast majority of research on impact-related brain injuries has been on the college and professional level,” says Dr. Whitlow, noting that two-thirds of head impacts occur in practice sessions, not games.

Read More: High School Football Player Dies After Injury

In the first-of-its-kind study, the researchers hooked up 24 high school football players between the ages of 16 and 18 with helmet-mounted sensors to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts and then sent them out to play ball. As the players hit the field, the sensors allowed the researchers to monitor the severity of players’ head impacts. The team collected data from the helmets before and after every game and the high school students also underwent pre- and post-season diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. “We looked at both structural and functional neuro-imaging and evaluated the players’ neuro-cognitive function,” he says.

“We found some changes in the brain that are concerning,” said Dr. Whitlow. “They are concerning because kids with more impacts had more changes and the kids with fewer impacts had fewer changes.”

While none of the football players were concussed during the season, the researchers found that there were microstructural changes in all of the players’ brains, especially in those players who were deemed “heavy hitters.” That direct correlation between game-related hits and changes in the brain is not exactly surprising, but may be unsettling for parents of youth football players.

Read More: The Tragic Risks of American Football

Not that Dr. Whitlow wants people to pull their kids from the peewee leagues or ban high school football just yet. “The high school athletes weren’t experiencing any of the classic symptoms of concussion—dizziness, nausea or double vision,” he says. “While the changes in the brains are concerning, because there were no symptoms of concussions, we don’t yet know how important these changes are.”

Dr. Whitlow sees the results of the study as only the first step in identifying a potential problem with allowing youth players to continue to play ball. He and his team want to determine whether these changes in the brain are permanent or transient and whether they are associated with subtle changes in neuro-cognitive functions. “Once we can identify risks, we can intervene to reduce those risks,” he says. Interventions could include improvements in technology and helmet safety, identifying maneuvers that could be particularly dangerous, making changes in the diagnoses of head injuries and identifying subtle changes that could be harmful.

So what’s a parent to do? Dr. Whitlow suggests they get involved in their kids’ practices. “You have to put these risks in the context of the health-related benefits of playing sports. The take home message is that parents need to use common sense. The best thing for parents to do is know what is going on on the field, know the symptoms of concussions, get to know the coaches, find out if there is a trainer on the field who can diagnose concussions.” He also directed parents to SaveInjuredKids.org for ideas on how to reduce head injuries and to learn to identify the signs of concussion.

“Football is the great American pastime,” said Dr. Whitlow. “I think it’s going to be around for another hundred years and what we’re trying to do is make it safer.”

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TIME neuroscience

Why We’re Falling Behind On Brain Innovation

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PASIEKA—Getty Images/Brand X

A series of reports explains the decline

Brain science is taking a hit, according to a recent series of papers published in a special issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.

“While the disease burden and economic impacts are on the rise, progress in the development of new therapeutics and treatment approaches has appeared to have stalled,” reads an editorial introducing the issue. “Approval for new therapeutics (whether drugs, devices, or other treatment approaches) for nervous system disorders have been declining and most of the treatments we currently have are not disease modifying.”

Large pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis have closed or downsized their brain research divisions, according to one paper, a move the study authors believe reflects a growing view that developing drugs for the brain is too difficult and time-consuming. In another report, researchers argue that there are not enough opportunities for various stakeholders to meet and collaborate on the latest research.

Still, researchers of a third paper focusing on Alzheimer’s disease argue that even though stopping neurodegeneration progression “seems daunting at the moment,” the brain and Alzheimer’s community should be encouraged by other fields that have successfully stopped disease onset with prevention efforts—like lowering cholesterol for cardiovascular disease.

The prognosis isn’t entirely dire, because the same researchers also offer their own solutions. To re-gain Big Pharma’s interest, perhaps the incentive model for brain research should change. “One way to do this that would not require upfront funding is to change the policies that regulate market returns for the most-needed breakthrough drugs,” the authors write. “The broader neuroscience community including clinicians and patients should convene to develop and advocate for such policy changes.” Others say they’ve had success in forming their own meetings of minds by pulling a variety of experts together.

There’s also the U.S. government’s BRAIN Initiative, a massive research project to map out the brain and gain a better understanding of disorders that can plague it. It’s unclear what the ambitious project, which is a little more than a year old, will end up contributing to the field. Some researchers have argued it might allocate funding away from labs not involved in the project.

Reisa Sperling, a Harvard neurologist and the lead study author of the new Alzheimer paper, tells TIME the project is a good thing for the disease, but with some caveats. “It is important to note that the BRAIN Initiative is really focused on studying basic mechanisms of how the brain works, rather than identifying disease-specific alterations that are more directly translatable into [Alzheimer’s disease] clinical research,” she says. “So I hope that there will be additional investment that will help us translate mechanistic research on normal brain function into understanding what goes wrong in the brain in early Alzheimer’s disease…to help us find an effective treatment more more quickly.”

The bottom line is that despite lack of funding for the field, the are still reasons to be optimistic. “The pace of research progress in neuroscience over recent years has been nothing short of amazing,” the journal authors write. As long as drug companies can be attracted again to the brain, the vast time spent on trying to unlock it will be well worth it.

TIME Science

Can Neuroscience Debunk Free Will?

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Some research shows that brain activity behind a decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision

One of the lively debates spawned from the neuroscience revolution has to do with whether humans possess free will, or merely feel as if we do. If we truly possess free will, then we each consciously control our decisions and actions. If we feel as if we possess free will, then our sense of control is a useful illusion—one that neuroscience will increasingly dispel as it gets better at predicting how brain processes yield decisions.

For those in the free-will-as-illusion camp, the subjective experience of decision ownership is not unimportant, but it is predicated on neural dynamics that are scientifically knowable, traceable and—in time—predictable. One piece of evidence supporting this position has come from neuroscience research showing that brain activity underlying a given decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision. In other words, thought patterns leading to conscious awareness of what we’re going to do are already in motion before we know we’ll do it. Without conscious knowledge of why we’re choosing as we’re choosing, the argument follows, we cannot claim to be exercising “free” will.

Those supporting a purer view of free will argue that whether or not neuroscience can trace brain activity underlying decisions, making the decision still resides within the domain of an individual’s mind. In this view, parsing unconscious and conscious awareness is less important than the ultimate outcome – a decision, and subsequent action, emerging from a single mind. If free will is drained of its power by scientific determinism, free-will supporters argue, then we’re moving down a dangerous path where people can’t be held accountable for their decisions, since those decisions are triggered by neural activity occurring outside of conscious awareness. Consider how this might play out in a courtroom in which neuroscience evidence is marshalled to defend a murderer on grounds that he couldn’t know why he acted as he did.

Some researchers have decided to approach this debate from a different angle by investigating whether our subjective experience of free will is threatened by the possibility of “neuroprediction” – the idea that tracking brain activity can predict decisions. The answer to this question is not, of course, an answer to the core question about the existence of free will itself. But it addresses something arguably just as important (maybe more so), because ultimately free will has little meaning apart from our belief that it exists.

In a recent study published in Cognition, researchers tested the question with hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The students were first told about a high-tech cap that allows neuroscientists to predict decisions before people make them, based solely on brain activity. The students were then given an article to read about a woman named Jill who tested wearing the cap for a month, during which time neuroscientists were able to predict all of her decisions, including which candidates she’d vote for. The technology and Jill were made up for the study.

The students were asked whether they thought this technology was plausible and whether they felt that it undermines free will. Eighty percent responded that it is plausible, but most did not believe it threatened free will unless the technology went beyond prediction and veered into manipulation of decisions. Only if the neuroscientists had somehow changed Jill’s mind to make decisions she would not have otherwise made did most of the students think her free will was jeopardized.

A follow-up study used the same scenario but added language to the effect of “All human mental activity is just brain activity,” in an attempt to clinically underscore that neuroscientists could interpret and predict Jill’s decisions just by diagraming her brain activity. Again, the majority responded that free will was threatened only if decision prediction turned into decision manipulation.

From the free-will-as-illusion camp, we might expect a skeptical reply to this study along the lines of, “A majority of people thinking Bigfoot exists doesn’t make it so.” That’s an understandable response, but unlike belief in Bigfoot (or insert your favorite myth), the implications for belief in free will are significant. Our subjective understanding about how we process information to arrive at a decision isn’t just a theoretical exercise; what we think about it matters. And it will matter even more as science nears closer to touching uncomfortable possibilities we’ve only been able to imagine.

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life and the best-selling What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, which has been published in 10 languages. His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Forbes, Psychology Today, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, Esquire, Mental Floss and other publications.

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