NINDS/NIMH Celebrate Brain Science at Gala
By Shannon E. Garnett
On the Front Page...
Brain science has come a long way in the last 50 years. We now know more about the brain and nervous system than ever before. Yet, there is still much to learn and more research to do. That was the resounding message heard at the jointly sponsored NINDS-NIMH 50th Anniversary Symposium held recently at the Natcher Conference Center.
"In the past 50 years, we've seen the face of neurological disease change from one of helplessness on the part of physicians and hopelessness among patients and caregivers to one of tremendous hope on both sides that many of these disorders can be treated and eventually conquered," said Dr. Yvonne Maddox, acting deputy director of NIH.
The 2-day conference, titled Celebrating 50 Years of Brain Research: New Discoveries, New Hope, featured scientific presentations by more than 25 leading basic and clinical scientists, including present and former NIH intramural scientists and grantees. The presentations focused on current research in the field of neuroscience, the mechanisms of major neurological and psychiatric disorders, and the potential for developing new therapies for many disorders including epilepsy, schizophrenia, stroke, manic depression, Alzheimer's disease, prion diseases, Parkinson's disease and AIDS. Other topics included ion channels, neurogenesis, brain plasticity and wiring, neurodevelopment, memory, emotion and attention.
More than 1,000 people attended the conference, one of the first major NIH events to escape postponement or cancellation following the Sept. 11 tragedy. Although many of the speakers commented on the events of Sept. 11 and the tremendous toll it has taken on our nation, they also stressed the need and importance for those involved in neuroscience to persevere and move forward.
"It is important to get together and it is important to meet as a family of scientists and as a family of science advocates to discuss what we have accomplished and where we are going in the future," said Dr. Gerald Fischbach, formerly NINDS director and now executive vice president of health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculty of medicine and of the faculty of health sciences at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
While a major portion of the conference consisted of scientific presentations, of special note were several addresses called "My View" during which the audience heard the personal side of three disorders manic depression, Huntington's disease, and spinal cord injury. These talks were presented by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who spoke about her own experiences with manic depression and her decision to share these with the public; Dr. Nancy Wexler, a professor in the department of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who described her work in Venezuela tracking Huntington's disease among members of the world's largest known family with the disorder; and well-known actor Christopher Reeve, chair of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in New Jersey.
Reeve's presentation, which came at the end of the first day and received a standing ovation, was particularly moving as he admitted that he and other patients are worried about getting "lost in the shuffle." He challenged scientists to not lose sight of the goal of research, which is to translate basic science into therapy for patients, and to not get so caught up in basic research that they lose the focus of actually curing people.
"Basic research of course is very, very valuable but it must not be anything more than the basis for therapy," said Reeve. "If basic research becomes an end in itself, it will create real despair."
Highlighted on the second day of the symposium was a panel of four Nobel laureates Dr. Eric R. Kandel of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; Dr. Stanley B. Prusiner of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California in San Francisco; Dr. Paul Greengard of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at the Rockefeller University; and Dr. Torsten Wiesel, president emeritus of the Rockefeller University. The panel was moderated by Leslie Stahl of the CBS television news show 60 Minutes. She led the scientists in a wide range of discussion topics, from their current research interests and their experiences at NIH to how the brain handles trauma and fear, to their advice for young investigators.
When asked if he would recommend the field of neurology to young scientists, Wiesel said, "The revolution of biology is so enormous and the potential and promise to do interesting work is so great that I would have no hesitation in recommending young persons to go into science, not only neuroscience, but all of science."
Prusiner added, "To be able to work in science. To be able to create. To be able to think about things that other people haven't thought about. To have the opportunity to get there first and to realize that, gee, I found something here which is unique...That's an extraordinary feeling to have and I think that any young person should take that chance and try. Science is a lot of luck. And if you are very fortunate and you get into a problem and it works out and you really discover something new, then this is the greatest career you can have."
In closing remarks Dr. Steven E. Hyman, director of NIMH, noted that the meeting represented an extraordinary collaboration between NINDS and NIMH, perhaps providing a glimpse of the type of collaborations that will soon take place in the John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center, which will be built on campus as part of an increased NIH effort to share research and resources among institutes.
Hyman said, "We look forward as this science progresses to growing closer and closer in terms of our scientific collaborations because it is clear that we are working at many levels of analysis and, quite frankly, we need each other if we are going to solve these important scientific problems. And we must always remember that we are ultimately in the service of people who are suffering and I think that draws us together."
The 50th anniversary activities also represent a first-ever collaboration among the Foundation for NIH (FNIH) and the two organizing institutes. FNIH board treasurer Mrs. William McCormick Blair, Jr., spearheaded efforts to involve the private sector. As a result, contributions from more than 40 corporations, foundations and individuals provided refreshments and other amenities for conference attendees and funded a celebratory dinner. Perhaps most important, funds raised will be used to enhance an educational initiative at the Porter Neuroscience Research Center.
A culmination of the foundation's 50th anniversary efforts, the dinner coordinated by Blair was held at the Library of Congress. The evening honored 50 years of accomplishments by distinguished scientists and sparked new conversations about the future of neuroscience research. Featured speakers included Reeve, Jamison, Blair, former Congressman John Edward Porter, and FNIH board chair Dr. Charles A. Sanders.
FNIH acting Executive Director Amy McGuire anticipates that this successful partnership will illustrate the foundation's potential as an advocate for each of NIH's institutes and centers.
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