Mind control

2013-08-12 00:00

“IT’S important to understand the brain,” says Henry Markram, “as there are 560 brain diseases.”

It’s Markram’s dream to find a cure for them. One of the world’s most eminent neuroscientists, Markram is currently on a visit to South Africa, and last week he gave a talk to an assembly of pupils and teachers at his old school, Kearsney College in Botha’s Hill, prior to addressing a more informal gathering of press and academics.

Markram was born in Kuruman in the Northern Cape in 1962 and matriculated in 1980 from Kearsney College, where he was a prefect, as well as captain of athletics and cross country.

After graduating with a BSc (Honours) from the University of Cape Town, he did his PhD at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He was a Fulbright scholar at the National Institutes of Health in the United States, and a Minerva Fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany. Markram returned to the Weizmann Institute in 1995, becoming an associate professor in 2000, prior to becoming a full professor in 2002 at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, and founder and director of the Brain Mind Institute and director of the Centre for Neuroscience and Technology.

In 2005, Markram launched the Blue Brain Project to develop a data integration strategy for neuroscience. This October will see the official launch of the Human Brain Project (HBP), of which Markram is the co-ordinator, which aims to build a computer model of the human brain by 2023 that will help both in the diagnosis and the creation of therapies for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, traumatic injuries, schizophrenia and depression, as well as behavioural problems.

Given all that energy devoted to the study of the human brain, it comes as a shock to hear Markram say that most pharmaceutical companies have stopped producing medication for brain diseases.

“There were 100 000 scientific papers on the brain written last year; this year it will probably be 150 000. Yet there are no new therapies and no new drugs.”

Switzerland, where Markram lives and works, is “the land of pharma” with many of the multi-national pharmaceutical companies headquartered there, yet they “have all shut down their neuro sections”.

This is especially alarming, considering that by 2020 depression will be the world’s second highest cause of disability and death after ischemic heart disease. So why is big pharma backing off?

“A new drug costs around one billion euros to research and produce,” Markram says. “And even then there is a high risk of side effects and then the drug gets pulled. So the pharmaceutical companies would rather stay with old-and-tried products.”

As a result of the pullback, €45 billion a year in research finance has been lost. But all may not be lost. The big pharmas are interested in the work of Markram and his colleagues. If it proves successful, they will be the first to take advantage of it as the creation, via HBP, of a virtual human brain. It will enable researchers to develop drugs via simulation, thus allowing them to see what will work and what won’t.

Markram also sees the HBP — already a collective effort — as heralding a major change in the way scientists work.

“We are doing something wrong at present. We are harvesting all this knowledge — but we need to change the way we go about studying the problems of the brain. Currently we study the brain as individuals. But we need to tell each other what we are doing.”

Gone are the days of the scientist working alone. “We are creating an Internet platform to facilitate people working together as teams. The team approach is a cultural revolution in how we approach the brain.

“And it’s moving very fast. For example, those thousands of studies — it’s all too much for one brain to take in. So we are forced to evolve a new culture of how we do things.”

Markram dubs this new way of doing science as “swarm science” — likening it the way bees work collectively.

“We are shifting into collective behaviour, working as collective teams,” he says. “We won’t tweet nonsense, but hopefully useful information.”

Markram says it’s also important to begin thinking differently about brain disease. “Currently 40% of diagnoses are wrong. So how do you even begin to develop a drug if you don’t know what the problem is?”

Markram’s solution to this is a radical one: throw away the name of the disease — “move away from symptoms-based diagnosis to biology-based diagnosis”.

Once again, a virtual brain will allow this to be possible and Markram hopes it will also make it possible to identify the early markers of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

It may even render “people with conditions that are difficult to treat or untreatable”, such as psychopaths and borderline personalities, treatable.

“We will be able to learn how the brain got to that point. There has to be trajectory. If we can understand how the brain evolved, then we can begin to look at methods of treatment.”

Some have suggested the project is not feasible because of the complex nature of the brain, but Markram remains confident.

“The brain is not a mysterious organ — just because it consists of 100 billion neurons, doesn’t mean it’s intractable or incomprehensible.”

Markram first began thinking about the brain during biology lessons while at Kearsney College. “I thought about brain diseases — depression and schizophrenia — and then began to think about personality and how it can be so flexible.”

Markram still retains the sense of wonder he first exhibited as a teenager. “Our brains are only six minutes old in the context of the universe … and we are still evolving. What will we be like in seven minutes?”

Markram continues to be amazed by the fact that here is a universe that has evolved a brain that can, in turn, ponder its own existence and explore the mechanics behind that existence.

Does his work have any theological implications? No, is the short answer.

“We know today there are patterns in the brain circuitry of some people that indicate a predisposition to be religious. If that pattern is there, you will be more religious, but not everyone has that pattern. And the presence of that pattern is not a proof of the existence of God, nor is its absence proof there isn’t a god.”

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