A 2001 World Health Organization (WHO) report revealed as many as one in four people around the world may experience a mental or neurological disorder in a lifetime. Research conducted by The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that in the United States alone, at least one in four people over age 18 will develop a diagnosable mental disorder each year. This number does not account for those who will develop neurological diseases during the same period.
Despite the obvious distinction between mental disorders and neurological diseases, these conditions can be grouped together because their root cause lies in the brain — the organ the healthcare community understands less about than any other part of the human body. Brain disorders cost the American economy around $1.5 trillion annually, and individuals and their families deal with the potentially debilitating effects of these illnesses on a daily basis.
In spite of this unfortunate reality, a 2016 report from leaders at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “Convergence: The Future of Health”, suggests how the medical community may begin taking meaningful steps toward studying the brain to discover effective treatments, diagnostic tools and prevention methods for mental and neurological illnesses. The report asserts the medical community can only tackle this and other issues if members of all scientific disciplines embrace the concept of convergence as applied to the healthcare sector.
In this instance, convergence refers to a collective approach to medical research that transcends interdisciplinary boundaries and moves beyond simple collaboration. Convergence in Healthcare mandates that members of the mathematics and scientific communities work together to truly share knowledge and approach research in a revolutionary way. This type of convergence allows for new insights and innovations that positively impact human health.
To understand the possibilities that Convergence in Healthcare has as a tool for innovation in the study and treatment of brain disorders, listed below are three ways it is already making a difference in this particular area of medical research.
An affordable early diagnostic tool for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
According to the most recent survey from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 45 American children between ages three and 17 have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a medically complex issue because physicians historically needed to rely on behavioral analysis to make a diagnosis, rather than using a medical test.
At the same time, research shows that early intervention for children with autism can have a positive impact on their future IQ, communication skills and social skills. Therefore, there is a pressing need to develop a more comprehensive approach to diagnosing ASD as early as possible.
Many parents are unaware of ASD symptoms, or may not be able to afford the costs associated with evaluations by specialists. This means that there is a need to create an accurate, affordable method of doing so.
A convergent approach to research of ASD diagnostic tools led to the development of a novel screening tool designed by Duke University researchers. Through the convergence of medical and engineering principles, researchers designed a computer system capable of tracking a child’s eye movements while viewing a video. The system then translates the data through a scoring algorithm to determine how well a child’s eyes tracked movement. A poor result indicates a higher likelihood of an ASD diagnosis of the child.
The program was reviewed by professionals within the information technology sector at Apple, which created an iPhone app that mimics the process. The resulting convergent technology allows parents to assess their child’s risk for ASD easily and affordably. Additionally, it alerts them to situations that may need a professional evaluation and diagnosis.
More effective research methods for Alzheimer’s patients
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.7 million people in the United States currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, with predictions for the number to nearly triple in the next 32 years. The debilitating illness disproportionately affects older aging Americans, who have become the focus of medical professionals struggling to unravel the basic biological processes behind its degenerative effects that may lead to preventive measures or a cure.
Through convergent research methods, professionals are beginning to develop tools using animal models that may help build the foundational knowledge they need for humans. This includes the creation of detailed 3D maps that lay out connections between neural circuits, and optogenetic techniques to observe brain neurons as they are turned on and off using a light-sensitive protein. Further, the convergence of medicine and physical science resulted in techniques that may improve short-term memory in Alzheimer’s patients through the application of oscillating magnetic fields to stimulate specific parts of the brain.
Better care for patients with traumatic brain injury
Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) account for almost one-third of all injury-related deaths, with more than 5 million people in the United States currently living with the effects of TBI. The seriousness of these injuries, combined with its prevalence, led medical researchers to focus on finding better ways to restore brain function and treat patients. Convergence approaches are aiding their efforts.
At MIT, researchers applying a convergent approach leveraged the power of MRI and diffusion-tracer imaging to more quickly and accurately locate damage to neural circuits. This resulted in more precise and effective treatments for injuries.
Older patients with traumatic brain injuries are susceptible to negative effects of anesthesia that can alter the brain. However, convergence helped researchers develop new methods of high-resolution imaging that use targeted brain stimulation techniques to help patients wake from induced comas more quickly. The shorter period of unconsciousness can help decrease the likelihood of anesthesia negatively impacting brain function in older TBI patients.