The scientific community has amassed incredible amounts of genetic data for various brain-related diseases in the last decade -- and the genomic hoard grows larger every year. Looking for genomic links between brain signals and autism? There's a study for that. How about important markers for Alzheimer's disease? There's an online database for that, too. One problem: We still aren't sure exactly how these molecular relationships impact the onset or severity of disease. As a result, there is still no way to objectively diagnose brain diseases, which makes misdiagnoses common, and cures seem like pipedreams.
Enter The Human Brain Project, a 1 billion euro project half-funded by the European Commission that aims to use supercomputing to recreate the human brain. It may seem like a logistical nightmare, but that is kind of the point. Creating a virtual human brain from scratch will push scientists to uncover every minute detail of every neural pathway. The windfalls will be huge, although breakthroughs are already unfolding. A sub-project named BigBrain created a 3-D digital model of a human brain with 50 times the resolution of the previous best model. Get ready for some major advances in health.
What's the BigDeal?
BigBrain divided an actual human brain into 7,400 slices, stained each to highlight various cell types, scanned them to a computer, and reconstructed a digital copy that will be made available to the public. It may sound creepy, but researchers will now have a way to peer into each region of the brain in unprecedented detail.
Autism studies will now be able to isolate brain regions associated with social interaction and facial recognition, such as the fusiform gyrus, to better understand the link between brain wiring and severity on the spectrum. Studies of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, will be able to look at brain regions associated with long-term memory. Addictive behaviors surrounding food or drugs could also be better understood -- leading to more successful treatments. We could even better understand the brain architecture of serial criminals, perhaps one day leading to a treatment that makes repeat offenders a thing of the past. The possibilities are truly endless.
Pharmaceutical companies have swung for the fences on several neurological disease medications, but have mostly whiffed. Again, this isn't for a lack of effort so much as a lack of knowledge. Could BigBrain change the way firms approach drug discovery by yielding new molecular targets?
There may never be a chemical cure for autism, but atypical antipsychotic medications are the best current option for alleviating behavioral symptoms associated with the spectrum disorder. The problem is that they blanket dopamine and serotonin pathways to do so, which comes with a fair share of unintended side effects. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) markets Risperdal, Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) markets Zyprexa, and Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) markets Abilify. Each treatment does mark an improvement over first generation drugs called typical antipsychotics. Unfortunately, we can do much better. Perhaps BigBrain and a flurry of generic competition facing each medication will lead to big advances for autistic individuals.
Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly could also use BigBrain to reset their approach to Alzheimer's. Both have encountered setbacks in phase 3 trials for Alzheimer's drugs, although no drug has proven successful in late-stage development, to date. Researchers now suspect that targeting beta amyloid plaques -- the approach taken by Big Pharma -- only comprises one piece of an effective treatment. What better way to find other molecular targets and brain relationships than to sift through 7,400 slices of a human brain?
BigBrain could also lead to future obesity treatments. Several studies have shown that deep brain stimulation, via surgically implanted electrodes, can result in weight-loss in lab animals. It works by disrupting the brain's habit circuitry. Similar procedures have actually been performed on humans with alcoholism to alter the neurological pathways responsible to addiction. You may feel more comfortable taking an oral therapy, such as Belviq from Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA) or Qsymia from VIVUS (NASDAQ: VVUS), than having your cranium cracked open. That is understandable. Both Belviq and Qsymia work to chemically subdue appetite pathways, such as serotonin 2C receptors. Implanted electrodes would work in a similar fashion, albeit in a more permanent way. Will Arena or VIVUS be marketing deep brain stimulation therapy for obesity in 20 years? Perhaps, but they need to figure out how to successfully market their oral therapies first.
Foolish bottom line
These are just a few of the doors that BigBrain opened. The project itself is actually pretty simple when you think about it: Take a human brain, slice it up, and create a virtual montage of the pieces. Nothing novel was needed to complete the task, just the idea to do it in the first place. Now, clinical researchers and neuroscientists finally have a floor for their research. If the Human Brain Project is as successful as it promises to be, it will be a long time before we hit a ceiling.