America has a large number of medical research facilities employing top scientists. However, the U.S. government’s funding of life-saving research programs has declined in the past 15 years. The traditional scientific research model is failing to innovate at a pace to meet global health needs. Without a new approach, the U.S. medical research community is poised to lose its effectiveness as a leader in the world’s fight against disease.
According to a 2016 whitepaper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the answer to the problem is Convergence in Healthcare, defined as “a result of the sharing of methods and ideas by chemists, physicists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and life scientists across multiple fields and industries.”
The aim of Convergence in Healthcare is to integrate these professional disciplines to discover new, improved means of diagnosing, treating and preventing illness. To illustrate the power of the Convergence in Healthcare, it is helpful to examine the effects this important research method is having on one of the world’s most deadly and debilitating illnesses: Alzheimer’s disease.
The current state of Alzheimer’s in the U.S. and around the world
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. From an economic standpoint, Alzheimer’s in the U.S. incurs a cost of $150 billion annually — a number expected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050.
Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Association notes that those who care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s often experience serious mental and physical health problems due to the high degree of stress involved with the caregiving process. Every year, these unpaid caregivers provide an estimated 17 billion hours of care.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates there are currently 47 million people living with Alzheimer’s worldwide. This number is expected to grow to 76 million people by the year 2030. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of nonprofit fundraising organizations and medical research scientists, no viable preventive measures or cure for the disease has been developed.
How Convergence in Healthcare could affect Alzheimer’s research
In MIT’s whitepaper, Alzheimer’s disease is identified as one of many prominent health research areas that could benefit significantly from Convergence in Healthcare. The report demonstrates the potential effects the movement could have on the disease by profiling several relevant research initiatives.
The most direct convergent research initiative is a technique that may one day allow patients with Alzheimer’s to recover lost memories, or possibly halt the degeneration process altogether. Scientists are working toward this reality through a technique known as optogenetics, in which a light-sensitive protein is incorporated into targeted neurons within the brain.
Once the proteins are implanted, scientists can control the neurons by turning them on and off through exposure to a flickering light. Researchers hope to one day use this technique to stimulate or shut off specific brains cells in patients with Alzheimer’s to restore memories or halt the progression of the disease.
Other research initiatives focus on improving the cognitive abilities of patients who are already living with the effects of Alzheimer’s. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are exploring a technique to bolster patient cognition during computer-based brain-training exercises.
To do this, researchers use an advanced tool that produces an oscillating magnetic field. The tool applies electrical currents in specific parts of the patient’s brain to stimulate it. Preliminary reserch has shown a promising impact on cognitive ability, including enhanced short-term memory.
Convergence through the BRAIN Initiative
A good example of the intersection of Alzheimer’s research and Convergence in Healthcare is through the government-sponsored Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The program was established in 2013 by the then-President Obama administration with the goal of curing, treating and preventing the development of brain disorders. The BRAIN Initiative established a collective of international professionals and groups to work collaboratively on understanding the human body’s most complex organ.
In the last five years, the network of scientists from different disciplines developed innovative tools for mapping neural circuitry and exploring the structure of the brain. These include CLARITY, an anatomic technique in which scientists use hydrogels and detergents to render a transparent image of the brain. The image allows scientists to study the organ’s finer structures. Further, the program developed the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network through which scientists are documenting all cell types found in the brain to create a workable atlas of its most elemental parts.
Convergence-based programs, such as the BRAIN Initiative, are crucial in research leading to a cure for Alzheimer’s. Once a platform of deep understanding of the brain and its function has been established, neuroscience will be able to apply this medical knowledge to the specific circumstances of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and move closer to finding a cure.