Read the Fine Print

Most scientists first learn their grant-writing skills in graduate school or as post-docs.  One of the rules that you didn’t find clearly spelled out in the instruction manual was “Find the hook”.  What trendy scientific issue will be conclusively dealt with only if your research project is funded? In the late 60s and early 70s when I was most interested in writing a research grant, the answer was “cancer”.  Your research seemed to have a better chance of being funded if it somehow dealt with a better understanding of this disease.  Today, the approach appears to be the same, but with a very different hook.  Research dealing with mental illness and addictions seems to get a great deal of attention.  But, as with cancer in the sixties and seventies, you need to read beyond the headlines to see what really was accomplished (if anything).

I subscribe to a couple of on-line medical alert emails and find them very useful.  Frequently I see a headline dealing with a better understanding of some psychiatric issue.  Further reading usually dispels my curiosity since I have little interest in treating depression in mice.  But today I really got bothered.  Not one, but two, articles heralded new possibilities in treating depression and addiction to smoking.  The articles are cited at the end of this blog.  One seemed fairly objective and was entitled “Transcranial Magnetic Brain Stimulation”.  The other offered much more promise:  “Discovery Of Nicotine Addiction Brain Mechanism May Lead To New Anti-Smoking Drugs”.  Sounds good, right?  New treatments that will help people with mental illness or addiction – everybody is in favor of that.

You have to read through half the article before you find out these studies were not done on people, but on mice.  The assumption is that the brain chemistry of mice is fairly similar to that of humans.  There are enough data out there to indicate that this is not always true, so researchers need to be very cautious in their statements.  Yes, it’s better from a research ethics standpoint to work on mice brains than human brains.  Yes, maybe (Stress the maybe) this work might lead to something someday.  But it is very unlikely that it will do most of us any good.

The bigger issue deals with the materialistic assumption that our behavior is determined by our brain chemistry.  There is ample data to indicate that changes in behavior and thinking have profound effects on brain structure and brain chemistry (another blog topic, perhaps?).  As long as scientists focus primarily on neurochemical theories of psychiatric illness, addiction, and other behaviors, we will be missing a great opportunity to explore valuable aspects of the mind-brain connection and we will miss many useful connections between behavior and biochemistry.

Benali, A., Trippe, J., Weiler, E., Mix, A., Petrasch-Parwez, E., Girzalsky, W., Eysel, U.T., Erdmann, R. and Funke, K. (2011) Theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation alters cortical inhibition. J. Neurosci., in press.

Mix, A., Benali, A., Eysel, U.T., Funke, K. (2010) Continuous and intermittent transcranial magnetic theta burst stimulation modify tactile learning performance and cortical protein expression in the rat differently. In: Eur. J. Neurosci. 32(9):1575-86. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2010.07425.x. Epub 2010 Oct 18.

Christie D. Fowler, Qun Lu, Paul M. Johnson, Michael J. Marks, Paul J. Kenny.  “Habenular [alpha]5 nicotinic receptor subunit signalling controls nicotine intake.”
Nature Published online 30 January 2011   DOI:10.1038/nature09797


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