The brain is on many people’s minds these days.
For instance, research about relatively normal brains and mental processes underpinned three of the top four books on a recent New York Times’ list of science best-sellers, and six of the top seven on its August 2013 list.
Occasionally, books on troubled brains make it onto the list. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in a given year in the United States nearly one in eight youths between ages 8 and 15, one in five youths between 13 and 18, and one in four adults experience a severe mental disorder.
When this happens, individuals and their families suffer. Increasingly, so do their communities.
At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, world-leading schizophrenia research scientist Daniel Weinberger will speak about strides being made in brain research. His presentation is titled “Nature vs. Nurture Meets 21st Century Brain Science.”
A recipient of numerous honors and awards, Weinberger spent nearly 30 years at NIMH, where he led the Genes, Cognition and Psychosis Program. It was there that he did most of his science.
“There was really no place quite like it — doing science and not worrying about getting funded,” he said.
Science magazine pointed to the genetic research of Weinberger’s lab as the second biggest scientific breakthrough of 2003 — second only to the discovery of the origins of the cosmos.
For a generation, Weinberger has been at the forefront of scientific investigation of schizophrenia, a chronic psychiatric disorder, as well as disorders related to it. According to the NIMH, schizophrenia disables about 1.1 percent of American adults. When combined with bipolar disorder, major depression and other serious mental illnesses, the number of adults directly affected is one out of every 17.
Weinberger was influential in concentrating research on the role of abnormal brain development as a risk factor for schizophrenia. His NIMH lab identified not only the first specific genetic mechanism of risk for schizophrenia, but also the first genetic effects that account for variation in specific human cognitive functions and in human temperament. Further, Weinberger and his colleagues developed the first high-fidelity animal model of schizophrenia.
In 2011, Weinberger transitioned to his current position as director and CEO of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, which currently houses the Maltz Research Laboratories in East Baltimore. He also lectures to Johns Hopkins University students and trainees in psychiatry, neurology, neuroscience and genetics.
“One of the great challenges of neuroscience is understanding the brain and behavior relationship,” Weinberger said. “In science, it’s the challenge of our time — how brains get made and go out of whack; the science of mental illness.”
Weinberger said he first became “fascinated by the intellectual ferment of psychiatry” in medical school — “particularly the intellectual challenge of combining exploratory science and humanity.”
“Humanity is not always found in medicine,” he said.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania before undertaking residencies in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and in neurology at George Washington University. Weinberger is board certified in psychiatry and in neurology.
“I am very interested in how the brain can get itself into these situations,” he said. “During my training in psychiatry I was trying to make sense of these disabling and often traumatic conditions that, at a low-resolution analysis, you can think came out of the blue. How did they happen?”
The World Health Organization reported in 2008 that mental disorders account for about 14 percent of the global disease burden, are connected with many other medical conditions, and are among the most expensive disorders to treat. It also found that qualified staff and funding are so scarce in health care systems worldwide, and commitment by policy makers so deficient, that prevention and treatment measures known to be effective are often not implemented.
“Mental disorders are a major concern,” Weinberger said. “They are major public problems. They are not avoidable anymore, because the impact on individuals, families and society is too great.”
According to Weinberger, the study of genes and environment has profoundly changed the landscape.
“These are hardcore biological realities — not just wives tales or nature versus. nurture,” he said. “This puts us in the same league as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. All mental disorders are caused by genes and environment. We’ve always said this, but now we know it. We know the names of the genes — they are real entities that we can study with hardcore science. We’ve made real progress. We’re now poised on a precipice.”
This precipice, Weinberger said, represents the need to reverse from characterizing mental disorders to identifying novel cures and means of prevention. Scientists have come to the point where they can begin to explore the possibility of cures.
“We’re not dealing at the level of superficial description, as we had been for 100 years,” he said. “Now we know what mental illnesses are. We have hard evidence as to what they actually are.”
Weinberger said that pharmaceutical companies are increasingly abandoning brain drug development. Private investment is needed to invigorate treatment because money is a constant worry.
“There has to be major private investment from private citizens preoccupied with benefiting others,” Weinberger said. “Private investment is providing a critical catalytic resource that focuses on results versus feeding the research engine as a goal in itself. It drives the results that have benefit and application.”