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What to Expect in Brain Health Research in 2015

Watch for some biomedical breakthroughs in a landmark year

A Landmark Year for Brain Health

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Brain-stimulation devices are being tested not only to treat and prevent Alzheimer's but also to improve cognition in people without dementia.

En español l Science is moving so quickly that none of us can fully anticipate today what biomedical breakthroughs might appear next year. But here are some to watch.

Human brain

A few months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued its first research awards for what's been called America's next moon shot: the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Researchers will develop innovative technologies to capture dynamic pictures that reveal how the brain's cells and complex circuits interact at the speed of thought. Then, we'll work to transform how we diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions, including depression, stroke, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.


Among the most promising new treatment strategies is personalized, or precision, medicine. In this approach, doctors analyze the genetic blueprint of a patient's tumor and use that information to choose the targeted therapy most likely to work for that particular patient. Already, personalized strategies are being used to treat certain types of cancer — and I fully expect the number to grow. Another area of tremendous potential is cancer immunotherapy. Researchers enlist the patient's own immune system in the fight against disease — engineering key immune cells in ways that essentially turn them into tiny tumor-fighting "ninja warriors."

New vaccines

Responding to the devastating outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, NIH recently initiated emergency human testing of two vaccines designed to protect against Ebola. If those trials meet with success, you can expect to hear a lot more about them in the months ahead. Researchers are also using new insights into the structure of viruses to improve vaccines for some common infectious diseases, including the flu. Human trials are now under way for a universal flu vaccine that we hope will prove effective against virtually all strains of the influenza virus. What's the big deal about that? When we have such a vaccine, perhaps by the end of this decade, we'll be much better protected against the deadly pandemic flus that occasionally sweep the globe. And we won't have to get a flu shot every year.

Francis Collins is the director of NIH.


New Thinking on Alzheimer's

Rates of Alzheimer's disease in the U.S. are not climbing as fast as they were, possibly because people are getting their blood pressure and cholesterol under control — two heart-healthy measures that may also be good for the brain.

Prevention is key. A half-dozen trials are under way to test whether lifestyle changes good for the heart — such as exercising and adopting a Mediterranean diet — can prevent or postpone Alzheimer's.

Brain stimulation works. Many types of brain-stimulation devices are being tested not only to treat and prevent Alzheimer's, but also to improve cognition in people without dementia. Some of these devices are implanted into the brain, and some are worn externally like a headband.

Get walking. For keeping your brain healthy, research shows that walking is as good as running, as it enhances blood supply in your memory centers.

P. Murali Doraiswamy is director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke University and coauthor of The Alzheimer's Action Plan.