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Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy's Mission: A Moonshot Into the Mind

Patrick Kennedy is challenging scientists to see "innerspace" as the new frontier, a moonshot into the mind to explore brain circuitry and impaired genes and to develop research that can be translated into therapies and cures for all brain disorders.
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Years ago, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy said to me that health insurance doesn't cover just certain parts of the kidney, why should it cover only certain parts of the brain? He was in the midst of his fight to get brain disorders - the ones that carry the extra burden of stigma - covered by health insurance like any other medical condition. (While serving in Congress, Patrick Kennedy was one of the chief sponsors of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The Parity Act requires health insurers that cover mental health to provide the same amount of coverage as they do for other illnesses. Read more of what Patrick Kennedy had to say about parity and the status of its full implementation.)

I recently caught up with Patrick Kennedy again. He's on a new mission, Moonshot, a project that's finally placing the mind into the brain, where it belongs.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to get a man to the moon and back safely by the end of the decade. It was "a great success in history," Patrick Kennedy said. To accomplish this ambitious goal, various fields of science were marshaled around a national objective.

Now Patrick Kennedy is challenging scientists to see "innerspace" as the new frontier, a moonshot into the mind to explore brain circuitry and impaired genes and to develop research that can be translated into therapies and cures for all brain disorders. He expects that this single-minded approach will help scientists to see where there's disease overlap and figure out the origins of all major brain conditions -- anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, autism, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, etc.

"We need to organize the research to focus on what is basic to all [neurological conditions], and that is the basic understanding of the brain itself," Patrick Kennedy said. He would like to see the various foundations, such as the The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Autism Speaks and others researching neurologically-based conditions, to focus on what's fundamental to all brain conditions.

"We have more in common than we have that divides us," Patrick Kennedy said. The fragmentation of research makes it difficult to see the big picture, which can lead to increased understanding of various neurological conditions and diseases, he said.

"The mechanisms of the brain are inclusive of more than one specific disease," Patrick Kennedy said. "By understanding Parkinson's, not only will we understand neurodegenerative disorders, but we'll understand neuropsychiatric disorders because Parkinson's involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, which also is a major component to depression, which is also a major component to addiction," he said.

The National Institute on Childhood and Human Development, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, focused on dementia as part of developmental disabilities seen in children with Down syndrome. Years later, their research findings in dementia migrated over to the Institute on Aging, he said.

"Here's the irony -- my Aunt Eunice started the National Institute on Childhood and Human Development, and it came up with the most formative understanding of Alzheimer's, which was the disease that took her husband Sergeant's life and which is now looming over her children's lives in terms of their being at higher risk for this dreaded disease," he said.

"We're losing sight of the forest [for] the trees ... We're so disease-centric in our philanthropy and in our political siloing of research among 13 different institutes of the NIH [National Institutes of Health]," Patrick Kennedy said. He worries that if the various medical research institutes do their research in silos, research in one field of neuroscience won't benefit the others.

Patrick Kennedy wants an epidemiological approach to neuroscience. He wants to understand brain conditions as we would a public health concern. He wants to know, population-wide, who is getting neurological disorders and why, to be better able to target pharmacological answers and service delivery opportunities. (Read more about what Patrick Kennedy had to say about why the pharmaceutical industry continues to put out "me, too" drugs and why the industry has not developed any breakthrough drugs in a generation.)

The first goal for Moonshot is to find out which genes are working alone and which are working in tandem to trigger neurological disorders, Patrick Kennedy said. With advances in medical technologies and the mapping of the human genome, he believes that the tools needed to explore "innerspace" are already there.

"With all of these new tools, nothing is saying we can't achieve full understanding of the brain within a short period of time," he said. The amount of time "depends on political will," he said, and collaboration across federal and private organizations, in other words, teamwork.

"We've got to get everyone in neuroscience to stop playing golf and start playing basketball," Patrick Kennedy said. His solution: crowd sourcing the researching, which Moonshot will lay the groundwork for when they meet in May. Moonshot launched last May.

For more by S.Z. Berg, click here.

For more on brain science, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.