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Brain research the new 'moon shot'

By Patrick Kennedy, Special to CNN
  • Patrick Kennedy: There was a retreating recession and conflict abroad before "moon shot"
  • He says new destination for today is closer: Upping research on brain diseases.
  • He says collaborative initiative "One Mind" will get research out of "silos," spur progress
  • Kennedy: With neuroscience as new frontier, new generations might be spared brain disease

Editor's note: Patrick Kennedy served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the author and lead House sponsor of the Mental Health Parity & Addiction Equity Act of 2008, founder of the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus and 21st Century Health Care Caucus, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and is currently co-chairman of One Mind for Research. He discusses his battle with addiction, the pain of losing his father to brain cancer, and "One Mind" on "Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports: Patrick Kennedy: Coming Clean," Sunday on CNN, 7 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- A recession loomed large in the nation's rear-view mirror. The economic recovery, still fragile, was marred by chronic unemployment, especially for workers whose jobs had been erased by technological innovation.

Meanwhile, an ongoing battle against foreign enemies consumed a large share of public resources. It was, in short, hardly the moment one would expect for a political leader to lay down a public challenge whose goal -- and costs -- staggered the imagination.

But 50 years ago on May 25, my uncle, John F. Kennedy, ascended the rostrum in the House of Representatives' chamber to do precisely that. His goal -- "to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth," and to do so within a decade -- was not merely appropriate to a moment of national uncertainty. It helped to resolve it.

It's time to do so again.

This time the destination is closer to home, but the technical challenges may exceed even a moon landing. So will the benefits. All we need is to be of one mind as to the goal.

Hence the name of a collaborative initiative that aims to undertake the moon race of our time -- a dramatic acceleration of the national commitment to neuroscience: The "One Mind" campaign.

Patrick Kennedy's new frontier: Healing the brain

It's an appropriate anniversary for embarking on an effort to unlock the medical mysteries of the mind. A half-century ago, the effort to reach the moon was driven by a sense that the nation lagged behind a competitor -- the Soviet Union -- and risked losing a crucial race.

Today, the competitor that must drive the race is the devastating array of diseases affecting the brain. Just as before, the consequences of falling behind will be devastating. Their impact ranges from Alzheimer's disease to mood disorders to the post-traumatic stress disorder that has created a mental health crisis among returning soldiers.

Just as in the race to the moon, the tallest obstacle we face today is not technical expertise. It's will. President Kennedy said half a century ago of the space race: "I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary."

But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to ensure their fulfillment."

That is true with respect to neuroscience today. Funding for brain research is declining, leading to fewer experimental treatments. Scientific expertise is scattered, and our approach to research is fragmented. The knowledge we do possess -- which is vast -- is isolated in research "silos," and incentives for research and collaboration are lacking.

The mysteries of an organ as complex as the brain simply cannot be unlocked with a scattershot effort. Mapping the brain today is as challenging as reaching the moon was two generations ago -- perhaps even more so. The thousands of different kinds of cells in the brain communicate with one another to form an estimated 100 trillion possible connections. No undertaking in the history of science has ever been more complex.

Yet there is ample cause for encouragement. Scientists have made stunning advances in understanding the brain's circuitry. New tools, from genomics to magnetic resonance imaging, are enabling new discoveries.

The challenge is drawing those disparate strands together into the contemporary equivalent of the moon race -- one that encourages local innovation to flourish while providing enough coordination and resources to reach targeted goals.

"One Mind" -- a private-public partnership that will include universities, government, advocacy groups, industry and private citizens -- has drafted a 10-year plan to complete a coordinated scientific roadmap for all brain disorders. It identifies priorities that include genetics, large-scale data gathering, mapping the circuitry of the brain and clinical applications.

iReport: What's the next "giant leap?"

Just as in the moon race, the challenge is too immense for the public or private sectors to undertake it alone. Those of us affected by the many illnesses and issues need to unite with one voice. There is precedent for doing so: In the 1980s, those affected by HIV worked together to reduce stigma and secure research funds. What was once a fatal disease is now a chronic disease that allows for a near-normal life span.

The idea that 10 years from today we might understand the fundamental processes that lead to human thought, or know how to cure Alzheimer's, or be able to spare veterans the burden of PTSD may strain our imagination.

But the moon race taught us that no challenge is beyond Americans' reach. That is the lesson America learned 50 years ago today. If we make neuroscience the next new frontier, it is a lesson a future generation -- perhaps spared the awful toll of brain disease -- might someday teach about us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Kennedy.