I am a 32 year old Canadian who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago. This past July I quit my job and moved back home to delve head first into this disease and learn all that I can about it and the treatment options that might be available to me. This disease has enabled me to get my foot in the door into places I would otherwise never have been and has introduced me to some remarkable people whose work will change the world. It has also given me the chance to observe science in action as it pushes back a frontier of our knowledge. I have come to realize that the treatments being developed for PD not only have a very real chance of one day making this disease a thing of the past for me and others stricken with it, but have far-reaching applications that will extend to everyone and fundamentally change the human experience.
Recent developments have given scientists a more thorough understanding of these disorders which in turn have also revealed insights into how our brains work. They have also lead to novel treatments that many researchers believe will be widely available to people with Parkinson’s within the next 5 to 10 years. But this will in essence just be a version 1.0 of these therapies, as we perfect these techniques they will be applied to other diseases in version 2.0(10 to 20 years down the road) and to otherwise seemingly healthy individuals in version 3.0(20 to 30 years out).
Our brains are a tangled mess of neurons that produce neurotransmitters which trigger electrical pulses that cascade through the brain and down our central nervous system to tell the various parts of our bodies what to do. These neural pathways are held together and supported by a vast network of different cells, each with its own unique function but all directed towards keeping you alive and functioning properly. Most of what goes on in our bodies is fairly well understood today, except the brain. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain of varying types and over 100 trillion connections between those neurons. They are responsible for everything you do and are. Until recently we have had little to no understanding of how all the different pieces fit together, but thanks in large part to the detailed study of neurological disorders we are now beginning to understand how it all works. In the years to come new tools and techniques, along with the application of machine learning, will allow researchers to probe even deeper with many believing that it is only a matter of time before we have a complete picture.
What we know, through the study and treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, ect., is that when neurons die off or chemical signals are no longer produced beyond a certain threshold, problems arise. In Parkinson’s Disease for instance, symptoms do not emerge until at least 50-80% of the dopamine producing neurons in specific parts of the brain have died. Yet everyone’s brain deteriorates over time, the spread of free radicals and accumulation of misfolded proteins that occur from the simple act of eating and breathing leads to cell death. Every single one of us has different amounts of healthy neurons in different arrangements and this is the reason why there is such variety in people’s cognitive abilities. The application of treatments being developed today to fix deficiencies in people with various diseases will one day be used in people who simply have sub-optimal levels of a particular neuron in a particular part of the brain.
The neurodegeneration that leads to neurological diseases is a by product of the natural aging process. Increasing awareness and understanding of the factors that contribute to aging have lead to a growing number of people in the medical community believing that we can intervene in this process and halt or even reverse aging altogether. Novel therapies are being worked on to address these problems. Some of the most exciting are…
All of these techniques are in their nascent stage and will see continual improvements over the years to come. It is conceivable that once perfected seemingly healthy people will be able to walk into a clinic, get their brains scanned, get a readout of exactly what parts of their brains have sub optimal levels and opt to augment those levels through one or more of the various techniques mentioned above.
Up till now the tools available for understanding and diagnosing most diseases have been woefully inadequate and funding for ambitious research has been lacking. However there is today more money being poured into such research and more people working on tackling them than ever. In the next decade we will gain incredible new tools to help our understanding. The most promising projects come from the European human brain project and the U.S. brain initiative that are trying to do for the brain what the human genome project did for our understanding of the genome. If successful it will give researchers unprecedented insight into how are minds are pieced together. In addition there has been an immense burst in funding for projects from private institutions like the Google developed Calico labs, the Paul Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Zuckermen mind, brain and behavior institute, the Gladstone Institute, the American Federation for Aging Research, the Buck Institute, Scripps and Sens, to name a few, not to mention all the new work being done in universities and for-profit companies throughout the world.
All of these efforts together with a newfound understanding that aging itself should be classified a disease leads many experts in the field to believe that we will make more progress in the next 10 years than we made in the last 100 years combined.
Then there is the application of machine learning to our understanding of disease. When it comes down to it, the reason why we have been unable to combat many of the diseases that are still with us today is that each one has too many factors involved for any individual or group of people to adequately grasp. However the advent of techniques such as neural networks and their application to big data will give us access to tools that are able to take in all the factors involved and output a far more accurate description of the problems we face.
While we should continue to be skeptical of the various bold proclamations made by a growing number of researchers who believe that diseases and aging in general will soon be a thing of the past, there is reason to believe that it is possible. Many dismiss the idea as either an unattainable goal or just wishful thinking, but for anyone who has seen what the last years of most people’s lives looks like, this should be reason enough to believe that life does not have to be so unforgiving.