For many people who suffer from health conditions related to the brain, the prognosis can seem hopeless or difficult. From strokes to tumors, there are all kinds of issues that seem in the darkest moments to have no cure or solution – especially when the diagnosis is chronic, long term or even terminal.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Step forward neuroscience, a discipline designed to improve the way that the brain and its functions are understood. And thanks to technology, neuroscience is moving to the next stage pretty quickly. From the capacity it offers for early interventions and the discovery of problematic illnesses to how it allows the genome to be used to personalize treatments, tech is turning around this scientific discipline and giving it the added clarity it needs to change the lives of those who suffer from brain problems. Here’s how.
One of the most important ways in which technology can improve neuroscience is in the form of early detection and warning systems. Many – although of course not all – of the conditions which affect the brain and its proper functioning occur later in life. Take the example of Alzheimer’s disease: this condition rarely happens in people under the age of 50, but yet it can feel like it has slowly crept up on those who suffer from it.
Now, however, it’s becoming increasingly possible for medical professionals to diagnose Alzheimer’s and other similar conditions early on. One piece of research focused on the presence of amyloid-beta protein plaques, a phenomenon that often heralds the onset of Alzheimer’s. It is now possible to locate the existence of this 20 years before the point at which Alzheimer’s symptoms start to appear – meaning that the disease can be slowed in its tracks.
Research into autism
Autism, in particular, has been at the forefront of neuroscience research in recent years. Professionals including Amy Yasko have been looking into ways in which autism care can be integrated, while others have been researching what might cause it and how its effects can be mitigated from a neuroscience perspective. One such area of focus has been on the role of seizures. There has long since been a suspected link between the way autism plays out and the condition of epilepsy, but it’s only recently that experiments have been carried out in earnest to see what this relationship might look like.
Given that a quarter of autistic kids above the age of 13 have epilepsy as a co-morbidity, recent research has led to all kinds of innovations. A story in The Scientist magazine described how the development of a metal tool that replaces sections of the human skull in those with epilepsy has changed the lives of some young people who experience seizures and has helped them to turn their lives around.
Personalization of treatments
Personalization has become the name of the game in a wide range of industries in recent years. And in neuroscience, it’s no different: in fact, personalization has been the key to understanding how the genome can be used to improve patient outcomes and ensure that any neuro problems can be tackled. By discovering the exact genetic code and make-up of a patient, physicians are quickly able to find the right place to start when it comes to prescribing treatment.
According to Dr. Scott Rauch, who is both president and psychiatrist in chief at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, the current position of neuroscience on this is now far advanced. “We are now understanding the complex effects of not just one gene…but of many genes with modest effects,” he said.
And the use of technology outside of neuroscience is also having an impact. Researchers in the field of air pollution, for example, used technology to discover how this phenomenon can affect the brain. According to research, pollution can hit part of the brain known as the olfactory bulb when it is breathed in – which could cause long-term ill health. Without the presence of technology, this kind of research would have been much more difficult to carry out – meaning that it’s an integral part of the neuroscience landscape in many ways.
Neuroscience is clearly benefiting from technological revolutions of all varieties. This exciting and important discipline has enjoyed plenty of inward investment in recent years leading to a fast and widespread uptake in technology, and now it’s patients who are benefiting. Whether it’s research in specific fields such as autism or the impact of society-wide trends such as air pollution, there are now all sorts of developments which have brought about advancements that are either saving lives already or are likely to be doing so in the coming years.