At the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting
Cure Alliance Debuts to the Neuroscience Community
Every year, Cure Alliance co-founder Hakon Heimer goes to the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in his capacity as editor of the online Schizophrenia Research Forum. SfN is the organization linking neuroscientists from all over the world—at the annual meeting, you can mingle with over 30,000 other people, most of them brain researchers. For the past couple of years, our other founder Robin Cunningham has joined him for an exhilarating and exhausting few days.
This year, Cure Alliance had an added presence—we joined 711 other exhibitors at the meeting, to introduce our organization to brain researchers and learn from them. We joined Autism Speaks as the only mental illness organization there (there were also 3 Alzheimer’s groups). In the small section reserved for nonprofit organizations, we collected signatures for our petition for more mental illness research funding, and talked with researchers and others about how we can best advocate for research to understand mental illnesses.
We met a wide variety of people, but what was especially encouraging was that we received the most interest from younger researchers, even college students, not to mention a few high school students fascinated by neuroscience. Some of them approached us to ask how they could help communicate with their peers. And although many scientists who study the brain don’t have much direct experience of mental illnesses or people living with them, quite a few of the people we spoke with are living with mental illnesses themselves.
Bit by bit, the research adds up to understanding
A lot of the research presented at SfN each year is basic science, which is to say that it targets the fundamental workings of the brain, and could lay the foundation for new treatments in a variety of different disorders. But a large proportion of the research addresses mental illnesses. One prominent session—“Improving Animal Models of Neuropsychiatric Disorders”—focused on newer models that have been proposed for studying the underlying brain changes underlying depression and autism.
Much of the basic science is also of particular relevance to mental illness. For example, many of the studies of developing brains in rodents have pointed to ways in which adolescent mammals learn and react differently from younger ones or adults. This knowledge suggests that cognitive treatments for anxiety or mood disorders may have to be modified from the formats developed for adults.
More broadly, studies on how genes and the environment interact to affect the brain, or how widespread brain networks are formed can offer clues about what goes wrong in mental illness. And this raises the important point that understanding the brain, the most complex structure in the known universe, is a marathon, not a sprint. To make the often fortuitous and unexpected discoveries that lead to new understanding and treatments for disease, we also need the hard work of building knowledge one small step at a time. One thing is certain—if we don’t do the research, we will remain ignorant about how our genes and our life experiences work together to make some people resilient and others susceptible to mental illnesses. That is why Cure Alliance for Mental Illness was formed: to remind people of what we have already learned, and offer hope for what else we can learn that will help people who are suffering.