I travel a lot, which means I spend much of my time in airports waiting to catch a flight. I use most of that time to work or catch up on email, but sometimes, when it’s really early in the morning or really late at night, I just sit at the gate and watch the people go by. And not too long ago I saw something that broke my heart.
It was a couple my age, maybe a few years older. They were making their way to the gate. They were ordinary-looking folks, but as I looked at them closely I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. The man seemed confused, disoriented, distressed. The woman seemed stricken, sad. She was holding his hand, leading him to a chair. He was asking her questions, softly at first and then more and more loudly. She was speaking softly, begging him to calm down. She kept telling him again and again where they were going and why. Little of it seemed to make sense to the man, though, and eventually he gave up, sat down, and closed his eyes. The woman sat down next to him. Tears were rolling down her eyes.
As a physician who has seen many similar cases, it wasn’t too hard for me to figure out what was going on. It was most likely Alzheimer’s, robbing this relatively young man of his memory, his mind, and his life. And it was taking a great toll on his wife, who was no longer just partner and spouse but caregiver as well.
According to the Alzheimer Association, an American develops the disease every 66 seconds, which means that while we have five million Alzheimer’s patients now, we may have as many as 16 million by 2050. Last year, families of patients spent an estimated 18.2 billion hours caring for their afflicted loved ones, care valued at $230 billion. By 2050, the toll care for Alzheimer’s patients takes on the economy may be as high as $1 trillion. It’s clear, then, that we’re looking at a crisis.
Can we stop this disease? Can we help that man I saw at the airport, and his family, and the millions who suffer from the same terrible disease? Recent scientific and medical history suggests that we can. When the AIDS epidemic first broke out, not that long ago, the virus was considered a death sentence. Today, the disease is a manageable condition, a breakthrough that was achieved by bringing together smart people from a wide array of disciplines and starting conversations that, we hope, will lead to innovations in research and to new and life-saving discoveries.
But before we can begin, we need to know exactly what it is we’re trying to do. What is brain health? How do we propose to study it? Let’s begin with the term itself, brain health. Because our brains and our bodies work together to keep us healthy, we cannot really talk of brain health without talking of body health and vice versa. We already know about how sleep, say, impacts our ability to learn, about how emotional pain and physical pain rely on the same exact regions in our brain, or about how our brains use prior knowledge and experiences to make future predictions. The more we study the brain, the more we learn about the factors impacting our health, and the better we can be about disease detection, intervention, and prevention.
Here, then, is our first marching order: We ought to be infinitely curious, not just about the narrow confines of our highly specialized research but about anything and everything that may give us some clue and some insight into the ways our bodies and our brains work in tandem. There’s no better way to do this than collaboration, and I’ve been very fortunate, in my own career, to enjoy some of the most wonderful partnerships I could imagine. A few years ago, for example, when working to help a young man named Ian with quadriplegia become the first person in history to regain motion in his arms, I had the pleasure of partnering with Battelle, an organization I had not previously worked with even though their headquarters are less than half a mile down the road from my office here in Columbus. Together, our teams helped Ian control his arms with his mind, using a brain implant and a neuro-sleeve that allowed his brain to bypass the damaged neural circuitry and communicate directly with his muscles. I hope that similar partnerships will be struck here this weekend.
And when I say “partnerships,” I mean it in the broadest sense possible. A few weeks ago, the popular press was giddily reporting that Elon Musk, America’s favorite billionaire inventor and the man behind the Tesla electric car and behind SpaceX, was entering the field of brain research to focus on brain-computer interaction. Similar interest is taking place by other the Silicon Valley giants and other major companies worldwide. We welcome the Silicon valley giants and what they bring to the table and we look forward to the energy, the skills, the brilliance, and the resources that Elon Musk and others will bring forward —such audacious and groundbreaking research isn’t the future but very much the present in Ohio and the Midwest, and we look forward to the innovators like Musk joining us in the heartland, and inviting private enterprise, academia, government, and the non-profit world to all come together and come to task.
The challenges that face us are greater than any one disease. They include anything from addiction to depression to the sinking understanding those of us who study it have that the human brain is struggling to process the torrent of cognitive stimuli it’s receiving anywhere from non-stop cable news to social media to a plethora of screens and smart devices. To grapple with these challenges, we need the scientific equivalent of the Avengers, a heroic team of committed scientists, each with her or his own outlook and expertise. If we work together, maybe the next time we see a person suffering from some previously incurable brain condition, we could successfully do what we’ve dedicated our lives to doing and offer them a cure and some hope.
This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.