November 17, 2014
Susumu Tonegawa is Director of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (RIKEN BSI), Director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics, and Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1987.
What do you consider to be the greatest opportunities and challenges in human brain research?
The neuroscience field is still very young, and we understand very little about how the brain works, particularly the human brain. Right now, many of us are studying the brains of various animal models, with the hope that the basic principles we discover will also apply to the human brain—and most of them probably do. But if we want to know how the human brain works, we really need to understand the link between these basic processes and the resulting cognitive and behavioral functions that are, for the most part, unique to humans—things like consciousness, mathematics, creativity, and language. Until we understand the basis of these functions, we cannot say that we understand the human brain. This is our greatest challenge right now.
Can you comment on the technologic advances—in imaging, analysis software, computing—that are emerging in tandem with basic biomedical discoveries about the brain? What are the potential applications of these technologies for the field?
We are just starting to understand the function of specific circuits as part of the neural network in the brain. For the human brain, though, we must go beyond observing a particular neuron or circuit and what happens when it fires; we need to connect the molecular and cellular biology to the physiology: the emotion, cognition, and behavior. Currently available technology—primarily MRI—is being used at its limit of resolution as we begin linking the structures of neural circuits and pathways to brain function. I think we are due for a revolution in brain imaging technology, one that will allow us to directly measure the activity of individual neurons in the human brain and reveal the functional connections to cognition and behavior. These new technologies will not only help us answer new questions about the brain, but also revisit older questions in a more specific and rigorous way.
What do you see as the consequences of recent largescale programs (e.g., BRAIN Initiative in the US, the Human Brain Project in Europe) on progress in neuroscience generally and how they are affecting research in individual labs, the culture of collaboration, and the questions being asked?
I am a big supporter of the BRAIN Initiative, which not only sets aside funding specifically for functional mapping of the human brain, but also gives scientists the freedom to decide what specific studies need to be done. Furthermore, from the beginning, the BRAIN Initiative actively engaged leaders in the field, set up workshops, and encouraged discussion about the key target areas for research, the available technologies and approaches, and overall project goals.
In Japan, there is tremendous political pressure to do science that is useful for society, for example, to develop a new drug for Alzheimer’s disease. But I would argue that new drugs cannot be developed unless we first know how the human brain works under normal conditions, and then in the context of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. As the Director of the RIKEN BSI, I continue to emphasize the importance of basic brain research, but we are not immune to outside pressure to do this kind of productdirected science. I do think that there will be significant advances in neurologic and psychiatric therapies, but not on the shortened time scale that is being proposed.
What societal or ethical issues do you think will influence brain research priorities and applications in the future? What steps do you think the field should take to resolve these issues and effect greater engagement with the public?
With every new technological advance comes the possibility that it will be misused. As scientists, we must be aware of the potential consequences of our work and try to engage with not only political leaders and policymakers, but also the lay public, to discuss the possible uses and misuses of new technology. There are many parties interested in the technologies that might emerge from human brain research: scientists want to use these technologies to understand how the brain works, whereas clinicians may be interested in using the same technologies to treat disease, and still other groups may want to know how the technologies could be applied to alter human cognition. Scientists must be sensitive to how their research might be used and make the ethical boundaries clear.
What are some examples of the implications of recent brain research discoveries for society?
There are two exciting new areas of research that may lead to more targeted treatments for neurologic or psychiatric disorders: stem cell-based tissue replacement therapy and deep brain stimulation. To achieve the latter, we must first map out in detail the brain areas and neural pathways involved in a particular disorder in animal models, then try and target the same area in human patients. Ideally, we should strive to discover treatments that are as non-invasive as possible; this will require cross-disciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists, engineers, and physicists. I would not be surprised to see non-invasive, targeted brain therapies being applied 20 to 30 years from now.
What do you consider the most important factors affecting how the field of brain research has developed in Japan in the recent past?
Japan is trying to internationalize the principal investigator (PI) workforce. For instance, RIKEN BSI has actively tried to recruit top scientists internationally. We have offered to provide internal funding so the PIs can engage in high-risk research in addition to the research supported by competitive grants, which we think is a powerful incentive in the current funding environment.
In the last five years we have also made improvements in collaborative research at RIKEN BSI. At universities, there are still significant departmental and disciplinary barriers which undermine multidisciplinary brain research. This will have to be changed if Japan is going to exert a stronger leadership role in international brain research.
Is there information in the present report that you think is particularly interesting, unusual, or likely to have an effect on the development of the field looking forward?
Information about productivity as researchers move geographically and across disciplines is going to be quite interesting. As Director of RIKEN BSI, one issue that I am particularly interested in is how to attract qualified PIs to Japan from abroad because I would like to see Japan play a larger role in international publication output. It has been changing over time, and I am curious to know what will happen in the next 10 to 20 years.
Press Release: Elsevier Presents Report on Global Research Landscape of Brain Research
Report: Brain Science – Mapping the Landscape of Brain and Neuroscience Research