A Congressman, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) director, a leader of a national advocacy group, and a scientist-turned-advocate shared a stage last month in Portland, OR, to talk about the importance and impact of neuroscience research nationwide.
This Neuroscience Town Hall was the final event of the NeuroFutures conference, organized and sponsored by the OHSU Brain Institute, the University of Washington, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which brought together scientists and clinicians in the Pacific Northwest to share recent discoveries in basic and translational neuroscience research.
Prior to the town hall, attendees browsed the gallery of 11 patient advocacy groups during the cocktail hour, including the Oregon chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association and NAMI, and the Parkinson’s Resources of Oregon, just to name a few.
Indeed, advocacy was the central topic for all of the speakers of the town hall.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) opened the discussion with praise for the “ecosystem for innovation in research” that exists in the Pacific Northwest, citing a history of positive collaborations between advocates, scientists, physicians, and the public. This collaborative environment is essential for “focusing on the overall arena of neuroscience,” which is the goal of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus that he founded in 2010.
Caucus events are standing room only, which he attributes to the nature of the topic: “Neuroscience is one of the few areas that actually brings people together… intrigues instead of divides.”
In a light-hearted turn in the conversation, Congressman Blumenauer jokingly suggested that perhaps neuroscience can help us answer the question of “why well-educated Republicans are more skeptical of the science than well-educated Democrats,” especially with respect to climate change.
But all jokes aside, the Congressman emphasized that we do need “objective, analytical ways to get these points across… for the betterment of society,” and neuroscience could be the catalyst for reaching across the aisle.
Next to speak was Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), who started his segment with “What he said, that’s what I think too,” prompting laughter from the crowd.
Dr. Koroshetz emphasized that the NIH is able to fund over $31 billion in research grants, because of the generosity of tax payers. In fact, the NIH is a great analogy to the electoral system, since the NIH structure is very democratic: “anyone can submit a grant, and grants are reviewed by peers.”
From an NIH funding perspective, Dr. Koroshetz told the audience “Current public health issues are heavily weighted towards neurological issues.”
He echoed the Congressman’s sentiment that we need a unified neuroscience effort, and that The White House BRAIN Initiative “floats all boats,” instead of focusing on certain diseases.
Support for basic research is imperative: “A recent major advancement in neuroscience comes from organisms that are more basic than bacteria”, speaking about optogentics, with allows us to turn individual nerve cells in the living brain on and off with light.
In order to “reduce the burden of mental health disorders in this country,” Dr. Koroshetz concluded with the need to bring together basic research, disease research, and patient support.
Dr. Mark Rasenick, Professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and chair of the Advocacy Committee for the American Brain Coalition, started his remarks by asking the crowd how many of us have participated in advocacy events. Only a handful of attendees raised their hands. Dr. Rasenick advised the audience: “To increase the enterprise of neuroscience, all of us need to be engaged… in activities on the Hill.”
As a scientist and advocate, the question turns to what to lobby for, since there is not enough money to go around.
From this perspective, lobbying for neuroscience research in general, in addition to specific diseases, will bring support for the field as a whole.
Dr. Rasenick concluded with a fantastic analogy for engagement across sectors: “Neuroscience is a big tent, and we all need to live in that tent, and tighten the wires to make that tent supportive.”
Katie Sale, Executive Director of the American Brain Coalition (ABC), piggy-backed on this analogy and the theme of the night: “We need to speak with one voice, and bring everyone together.”
As the nation’s largest organization of neuroscience-focused patient advocacy groups, the ABC is doing exactly that. Working through the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, the ABC pulls together a clinician, a scientist, and a patient advocate for briefings on a wide range of topics – from mental illness and neurodegenerative diseases, to the effects of physical activity and music on the brain.
Summing up the collaborative spirit echoed by all the speakers, Ms. Sale concluded the night with a positive sentiment: “Step by step, we can all make a difference.”
Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D. is a post doctoral fellow in the Department of Neurology.