A story about the development of an idea in science

There are those in the science community who subscribe to the “its Bush’s fault” school. In doing so, the demonstrate that they are not very good historians, either of politics or of the history of science.

Jonah Lehrer’s article in Seed, The Reinvention of the Self, A mind-altering idea reveals how life affects the brain (FEB/MAR 2006) has many points to ponder about the progress of science.

It used to be thought that the human brain did not grow or change after birth. Damage to nerves or brain material were permanent. The story about how Professor Elizabeth Gould changed this view illustrates just how difficult it is to turn over a prevailing wisdom in the science community. Gould was not the first to observe neurogenesis. She just added the straw that broke the camel’s back. Gould was the person who was able to add enough data and create the experiements and propose the ideas in a way that broke through the inertia of the old ideas. This is typical for major ideas in science as it is peer pressure and the resistance to change that are the major inhibitors of new theories – not politicians.

Gould’s work as a tipping point has the big pharmaceutical industry going full tilt on a new avenue for therapies to address brain related disease such as depression and Parkinson’s disease. With a new understanding of the source of these disease and their mechanisms, the search for how to alter and adjust – fix – these mechansisms when they turn faulty is more focused and that leads to more profitable results.

The role of the environment in issues such as poverty and stress and battle fatigue (now known as PTSD) is also being re-examined. The nature versus nurture battle is an old one and represents a fundamental split that influences basic political philosophies. The article even mentions, makes a snide remark, about the fact that the research can be read as saying poverty is a disease caused by the environment. The remarks miss the idea that the nurture side of the argument – getting a job and finding religion and doing things – may be a ‘natural’ way of curing environmentally influenced diseases. This is an example of the same sort of barrier the article discusses as holding back neurogenesis ideas in the first place.

What is being learned is that the brain is not static. It changes. Changes are reactions to environment and genetic heritage (although the Seed article really only addresses environment). Parts of the brain die. Parts are reborn. Up until just recently, this idea was heresy. Now it is producing many new insights and the promise of new cures and therapies for many diseases.

The idea that a decades old well accepted theory in science can be overturned may lead to questions about why evolution could not be similarly revealed as out of date, too. The core of this matter is how we know things. The Seed article points out that much of neurologic research is done with animals in cages and that part of the new insight is the realization that experimental proceedure may have had more of an impact on those studies than previously thought. The knowledge about the brain response was based on rather limited observation and research. Evolution is a contrast to this as it is observed out of the lab and in many different fields of research. Some scientists tend to forget that how we know things is an important factor in how much confidence they should have in what they think they know.

Comments are closed.