(Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst)
The U.S. space program went full throttle in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to claim a leadership role in space and land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. And now, 50 years later, another Kennedy is spearheading a second “Moon Shot,” which calls the brain to be the last medical frontier for discovery.
Patrick Kennedy, the eight-term Rhode Island Democrat and 43-year-old son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, is on the campaign trail, although this time he is rallying for the brain – not politics.
Along with a group of neuroscientists, Kennedy has launched an initiative called “One Mind for Research” to improve funding and fuse together research efforts and brain science.
His goal is to bring mental illness out from behind the shadows of negative stigmas.
Kennedy, in a recent editorial published about the idea, said America needs to have the same spirit about brain research, as there was in the historic call into space that ultimately transformed the science community.
“We need to apply the same sense of urgency and goal-driven research that allowed us to put a man on the moon to research the mysteries of inner space, the human brain,” Kennedy wrote.
“Mapping the inner space of the brain represents a scientific challenge unparalleled since Moon Shot.”
Kennedy, who has been in and out of rehabilitation through the years to cope with his addictions, said the stigma attached to diseases of the brain is a false assumption.
He said America must jumpstart brain research so the medical community and the public in general will think of the brain as they do the heart, lungs, kidneys, or any other organ in the body.
During his congressional tenure, Kennedy successfully created a mental health advocacy for a bill that required insurance companies to treat mental health on an equal basis with physical illnesses.
“This is a quest that's relevant to every American,” Kennedy said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“It is for military troops with rising suicide rates, children whose parents have Alzheimer's disease, parents whose children have autism, anyone with a friend or family member suffering from epilepsy, depression, Parkinson's disease or addiction.”
Kennedy’s plan includes a coordinated effort between government representatives, advocacy groups, pharmaceutical companies and neurologists.
The group will soon release a10-year plan for the science community to map neural connections in the brain and make the data free and accessible.
“We hope to raise $5 billion from philanthropists and secure an additional $1 billion in federal funding,” Kennedy said.
Defining the relationship between the brain and the self is an ongoing conversation in the science community.
Kennedy is bound to face opposition from those in the medical field like Dr. Stanton Peele, a social/clinical psychologist, who said addiction is not a consequence of taking drugs and drinking. Rather, it arises from the way in which these and other compelling activities fit into people’s lives and meanings.
Peele’s book, entitled The Truth about Addiction and Recovery, poses the question whether there are really no other ways to change a powerful habit than to enter treatment for a disease.
He debates the fact, saying that by personal initiative, willpower and simple maturing has something to do with people’s ability to overcome addictive habits.
“Humans regard their own experience as inviolable truth,” Peele said. “They believe that what happens in their minds is the way God and nature intended people to be. The human mind is simply not good at transcending personal experience to imagine other ways of being – as most notably evidenced in their views about God, substances, and addiction.”
But Kennedy is sure to forge on with his initiative because it is personal to him and many
agree with his belief that the brain is the last medical frontier.
“What we’d like to try to do is bring all the diversity of advocacy – whether it’s Autism Speaks or Alzheimer’s Foundation, or any of the groups that advocate for brain research,” Kennedy said.
“We must be united behind the mission that the brain is common to all of us. So we should be thinking more on the brain and how to unlock the mysteries of the mind, as opposed to each trying to think individually for our specific disease group.”
The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology has already endorsed Kennedy's initiative and agrees that treating brain diseases has been hampered by the complexities of the brain and its disorders compared to all other organ systems, and by the stigma associated with many of these conditions.
"Moreover, federal, state, and private funding for brain diseases continues to lag far behind funding for other medical areas as a function of disease burden," said Dr. Eric J. Nestler, president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
"Simply put: nothing will have a greater impact on humanity than conquering brain diseases."