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Kathleen Reardon

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What's Going On in Your Mind? Congressman Patrick Kennedy Brings the Best and the Brightest to Boston for a "Moonshot Moment"

Posted: 05/24/2011 12:23 pm

Congressman Patrick Kennedy said yesterday on opening day of the One Mind Research Conference he convened in Boston: "The most personal thing any family can ask for is to help them take care of the people they love." In this sense, Kennedy added, "Politics is personal." It's a message that leading scientists and advocates for brain research speaking and meeting for three days hope will be heard in Washington.

That's why Congressman Edward Markey was here -- to help develop the leadership needed to advance understanding of cognitive and brain disorders and to care for people whose lives are altered by them.

Congressman Markey talked of his own struggle when his mother, once valedictorian of her high school class, developed Alzheimer's. In fact, at this conference it's clear how many lives are touched by brain disorders. It can be a lonely existence for families and an intense struggle to find good care. And, it isn't just women, by the way, caring for the struggling people they love. Millions of men are doing so. The lives of children, spouses, partners, parents, and extended family members are changed forever by mental illness. The stigma alone is wrenching.

And so Kennedy, along with the International Mental Health Research Organization founder Garen Staglin, Harvard Provost Steven Hyman, and a host others brought together top scientists, politicians and advocates to understand the "inner space" of the brain so that the lives of millions might be improved. They demonstrated that lowering the debt is not about taking medical care away from people but helping them obtain it.

Kennedy has called this the "moonshot moment" relating back fifty years to President Kennedy's courageous speech about a seemingly impossible landing on the moon. Patrick Kennedy calls One Mind the first "mission to the mind." It's about constructing an interdisciplinary methodology for moving forward at a time when research funding from NIH is waning and many pharmaceutical companies are pulling back on what they see as research taking too long and costing too much.

Caroline Kennedy joined the conference along with Patrick's brother, Ted, and other members of their family there to launch another project to help people who often cannot help themselves. Vice President Biden will speak tomorrow at this historically significant meeting -- a clear sign of his support. Dr Francis Collins, Director of The National Institutes of Health, a "scientific giant" described the conference and what will follow a "call to arms." It brings many of the best and the brightest to Boston whose hearts are also in the right place.

Senator Max Cleland received a standing ovation after his story of the struggle that follows severe battle injury. So too did Colonel Geoffrey Ling, M.D., Ph.D. who showed the audience video of IED explosions making the experience up close and personal.

You couldn't help but be moved by the work of Dr. Jean Bennett who saves the eyesight of people who would otherwise spend their lives in the dark.

Researchers from across the country described the new frontier from their perspectives. People paralyzed now can use their minds to move cursors on computers and robotic arms. Impulsive behavior is now less of a mystery as are fear and anxiety. Greater understanding of the genetic influences involved in Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder is within our grasp. So, too, is our understanding of how maternal and paternal genetic influences gone awry can alter lives and what may be done in the future to redirect those influences. Surgeons can enter the brains of people with Parkinson's (DBS) and give them back their lives.

Social relationships, the focus early today, are so important to our health as well. These are not the second cousins of cure. They are crucial. The field of social neuroscience is advancing knowledge of how our brains work in a variety of social tasks. We're learning why many of us have problems forming social bonds. By identifying the circuitry of social attachments, we may be able to alter them and again improve people's lives.

On the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's moonshot speech, there is considerable hope in Boston. Fifty years later another Kennedy, with the same intense spirit of the possible, evident passion and the ability to draw the best minds to a concerted effort of collaboration, has brought us to the brink of a new frontier. It may be the toughest one yet.

Unless the word gets out that the most important resource we have -- the human mind -- is flexible, knowable and reachable, we'll continue to think of illnesses we can cure as ones we can't. It's time for people busy taking money from health programs and research to recognize that there is no greater resource than the human mind. And few of us remain untouched by the many ways things can go wrong. Too few of us, this conference shows, know how close we are to making these same things right.

The truth is that people who have illnesses are not those people over there. They are who we are. People who are ill are also not their implicated organ; they are human beings like all of us. Through the Special Olympics and other wonderful programs fortunate families have been able to focus on the positive with their loved ones, Kennedy pointed out. They have vehicles to celebrate small and large victories. We must widen that "circle of opportunity" he argues -- for all our families.

"We must work to restore the organ of empathy and understanding" and thereby restore human connection. As voters we must insist on this. We must do so despite Washington polarization -- because of it. As Patrick Kennedy said today, "If someone falls, we should help them." That, after all, is who we are.

Dr. Reardon is also Distinguished Fellow with First Star advancing the rights of foster children and developing on-campus foster academies. She also blogs here.

 
 
 

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