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GP13Oct04: Brain Mapping and Brain Storming

Superman Dies.  Christopher Reeve, who flew across the screen as Superman in a string of very popular movies, died Sunday last of cardiac arrest.  Paralyzed by a horse-riding accident in 1995, he strove mightily to regain use of his body while campaigning endlessly for spinal paralysis research and neurological discovery.  In fact, he started his own foundation to push the science along (www.christopherreeve.org/).  His own recovery as well as advances in the research were painfully slow, but the progress has been undeniable.  A make-believe superman turned into a real life superman as he overcame human inertia and cajoled neurologists to do better.   

Brain Stem.  Our own section on the brain and the nervous system got started because we realized that brain disease and neurological understanding would become ever more critical topics as we worked out way into the 21st century.  And, further, that we would have increasing reasons to understand how learning takes place and how mental development flourishes, since we are obliged by circumstance to turn ourselves into a Knowledge Society.  Today Brain Stem is one of the mostly widely visited parts of Global Province. 

We’re witness to a host of afflictions that give urgency to brain research, really the last rather unknown frontier for the medical community.  Autism, devastating to children, has witnessed a tenfold rise in the last 20 years.  Mental illness, particularly depression, is rampant in the developed countries, causing perhaps half of the disability throughout society and a quarter of the total impact of disease.  (See “Anatomy of Melancholy,”  Brain Stem #55).  Along with the tremendous growth of senior populations in all the developed countries has come a vast increase in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurological complaints.  The swelling in the ranks of our elders not only is weighing heavily on our health and pension benefit systems, but it’s putting neuro-discovery at the center of the medical research agenda. 

State of the Brain Art.  We’ve come a long ways, but we have so far to go.  Isn’t it simply amazing that we are now talking about regenerating nerves when even today high schoolers still hear that nerve cells cannot grow back?  And yet all the brain diseases we’ve ever heard of seem as untreatable as ever.  To get a good idea of the state of brain research, we recommend a look at the Dana Foundation’s website and a read of its Progress Report on Brain Research 2004: The Brain Immune Connection at www.dana.org/books/press/progressreport.  This year the report reminds us that scientists are learning (a) that the immune and nervous systems of the body are very much alike and, more importantly, (b) that they interact with each other, proving, if we ever doubted it, that the state of the mind and the state of the body have a lot to do with each other. 

In his introduction, Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, who has done so much work on memory, tells us, further, that the molecular investigations of researchers and the problems that doctors and psychologists deal with in a clinical setting are now much more closely related.  It used to be, he says, that there was “an inverse relationship between the clinical significance of a particular problem for neurology or psychiatry and the ability to tackle that problem rigorously on the cellular and molecular level.”  “Basic science and clinical science are no longer worlds apart.”  He looks forward to more interaction between the lab and the clinic, so that doctors and researchers can understand each other’s worlds.  And he is optimistic that science at the molecular level will begin to produce more in the way of neuro-therapies. 

That said, our science is still largely producing greater understanding of how diseases work, not much in the way of cures.  On Brain Stem this week you will see that we are just getting at the biological basis of autism.  Or that Aspect Medical Systems has achieved serious marketplace recognition by offering brain monitoring equipment, though it hopes to extend its technology into actual treatment someday.   You can see on Kurzweilai.net that the artificial intelligence community toils away at mimicking the processes of the brain.  We’re really still mapping the brain, not fixing its omissions.  Our science is giving us a better idea of how the brain and specific brain diseases work, but we are still short of any magic bullets. 

Our suspicion is that we are 3 to 6 years short of seeing concoctions that seriously come to grips with neurological problems.  This is still true of many areas of critical research in our society where we are tantalized by our little discoveries, but are still very much just outside the gates of the palace.  For instance, the most optimistic predictions about solar power dream, but only dream, that it may achieve real commercial viability in 2007.  You can find an update on Solar Power on Big Ideas this week. 

Accelerated Development.  As science, and R & D, and product development accomplish wonderful things, yet never accomplish enough fast enough, our own interest in creativity and quantum leap research  picks up.  How do we get there faster?  This is where our future lies—in rapid fire discovery. 

As the epidemic of brain and neurological disorders demonstrates, we have problems aplenty at the door, and we need to wrestle them to the ground.  As importantly, global economics have changed such that every product and service quickly become  commodities  that can be produced more cheaply somewhere else.  That means we have to be efficient creatives and innovators that bring big new ideas to market at less cost, for instance, than today’s pharmaceuticals expend to get a drug into the healthstream.  Our added value in the advanced economies lies in rapid innovation. 

Thinking Machines.  A good place to look at creative ferment might be Thinking Machines Corporation.  It went bust in 1995, and might be termed a glorious failure.  Some think it even had the wrong mission: its founders and their compatriots were a band of people out of MIT who wanted to build supercomputers to understand common sense reasoning problems.  In other words, they were building powerful parallel computers to help further artificial intelligence, at best a small market.  For more on all this to include a case study of its migration to scientific computing, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking_Machines  and http://theory.lcs.mit.edu/classes/6.972/TMC%20Corp.html   

Yet build they did, and very well.  Co-founder W. Daniel Hillis took his doctoral ideas about parallel architecture off-campus.  Some interesting ideas about accelerated development come out of the Thinking Machines history.  First, it helps to be near and related to a superpower educational institution.  Because of  its MIT connection, all sorts of talented people were mixed up with the project including Marvin Minksy (http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky), who has driven advances in intelligence theory and learning dynamics.  We ourselves have come to think that it is helpful for development enterprises to have strong, seamless interplay with a host of non-profit institutions that go well beyond academia.  High creativity does not take place in a vacuum, but requires instead a fertile institutional and community setting.  That’s where brainstorms take place.  

Secondly, it pays to have a huge mission in which you believe. It’s not just that Hillis was building a massively parallel computer beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.  He and his band hoped to advance the cause of artificial intelligence, even though the conceptual apparatus of that field was still very thin at that time, and this gap much inhibited progress.  But they had a deep, purposeful dream.  As it turned out, they were ahead of their market, but their advances migrated and propelled change in other spheres.   

Third, you need a resident genius around the edges of your project who is somewhat divorced from the day to day chatter of the worker bees.  In February 1989 Hillis wrote for Physics Today an article entitled “Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine,”

which records the several entertaining contributions of that Nobel Prize winner to the project.  Doodling on the side, away from the others, Feynman solved a host of problems and contributed as well to the human organization of the enterprise, drawing on his experiences at Los Alamos.  His observation that only five, not seven buffers, were needed in each chip proved critical: the chip could not have been manufactured otherwise.  We are clear that he sliced days and months from the development schedule. And finally, Feynman was eager to teach all his colleagues about each new discovery, one of several ways that Thinking Machines became a learning enterprise that could make quantum leaps. 

Parallel Brain.  Hillis has said: “Clearly the organizing principle of the brain is parallelism.  It’s using massive parallelism.  The information is in the connection between a lot of very simple parallel units working together.” 

As one antic researcher is wont to say, “What do you call a skull without a 100 billion neurons?”  And the answer, “A No Brainer.”  All we have to do is to get those 100 billion marching together for learning to flourish and discoveries to mount.  In fact, we are increasingly discovering a lack of connectivity in those afflicted by brain disease.     

Probably, in that thought, lies the key to accelerated research and development.  The challenge is to find out how we get “very simple parallel units working together.”  How do you usefully and harmoniously connect independent intelligences?  For years we have counseled several management consulting and investment banking firms—both of which are peopled by droves of exceptionally bright people who accomplish relatively little.  The atmosphere is so competitive that it is difficult to forge good connections inside each firm or even dream of creative fusion with outsiders.  That’s all the more worrisome in a globally connected world where the bright fellow who may most light up your project may make his home a half a world away.  The price of isolation from the brightest and the best is very high, indeed.    

Knitting bright people together takes an Oppenheimer at Los Alamos and other sorts of unifiers in other enterprises.  The organization of creative activity probably is unlike anything else that occurs in cooperative enterprise, and all the tracts on Knowledge Workers don’t seem to grasp its essence.  It requires an ethic that reins in rampant egos and abrasive discourse.   

Lighten Up.  We’ve always known that brainy people will accomplish more if they are playful and create smiles around them.  Feynman, incidentally, was quite a joker.  In this vein, we have inserted a few light notes on Brain Stem this week.  Particularly be on the lookout for Boston’s most stylist neurologist and see Mr. Chudler’s Brain Jokes.  In other words, one way to get beyond plodding is to hop, skip, and jump once in a while.

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