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The Next 50 Years: Thinking Outside the Brain

The Next 50 Years: Thinking Outside the Brain

This semester, the College of Natural Sciences is checking in with faculty experts about developments related to their fields of study that may well affect how we live, work and interact with one another and the world around us over the next 50 years. For this installment, we hear from Professor Adron Harris, M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Chair in Molecular Biology, a professor of neuroscience, pharmacology and psychiatry, and the associate director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research.

Professor Harris's projection for the next 50 years:

In the future, neuroscientists and those treating brain diseases will embrace the idea that the brain is not isolated from the body. Indeed, its function and its failings are strongly influenced by several key factors outside this organ. Consider three examples.

The first of these is the immune system. We know that a viral or bacterial infection causes 'malaise' — a condition in which we don't have interest in anything or anyone. This is because activation of our immune system is controlling the brain. This "sickness response" shares many symptoms with major depressive disorders, and the emerging fields of neuroimmunology and immunopsychiatry promise new treatments directed at immune signaling.

A second major influence on the brain and behavior is the microbiome — particularly the bacteria and viruses that live in our gut. We consider ourselves to be made of the cells in our organs and our genome to be made of the DNA in these cells. Surprisingly, this is only a fraction of a human; we have more cells and more DNA in our microbiomes than in our organs. And these bacteria are chemical factories making molecules that influence all our functions but particularly our brain and immune systems. We are only beginning to explore how changes in the microbiome can affect brain health.

The third emerging factor in brain function is environmental exposure, clumsily named "the exposome." Pollutants change immune function, and that is one route to altering the brain, but inhalation of at least two pollutants – ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5) – can activate inflammatory signaling in the brain independent of actions on other organs and potentially contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

For the past century, the brain was considered as isolated from the body (with consciousness only represented there), and in Western medicine treatment of brain diseases almost always delivered a drug, surgery or electrical stimulation to the brain. In the future, we will likely pay much more attention to the role of immune, microbiome and exposome function in diagnosing and treating brain problems.

Check out more essays and podcasts in our series, The Next 50 Years

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Sunday, 31 May 2020

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