I recently sent out the following email…
Greetings scientists, researchers, and lovers of biology,
I have a thought experiment that I was hoping you might want to participate in, it’s pretty simple…
You are an alien with near-perfect knowledge of the biology of life on Earth, the human brain and the diseases that age it. In 100 words or less, what advice you would give to humanity in their quest to understand biology and conquer diseases of brain aging?
Below are my favorite responses…
1. Fail fast, fail often. Review, adapt, and then test new adaptation using the same process. Above all else: fail fast.
2. Individuals are different. Do not discount this in the hope of finding a silver ‘one size fits all’ bullet.
3. Seek the untouched space. Avoid the idea of others. Avoid trends.
4. Brain is hard, but not too hard. Persevere.
The information that humanity has at its disposal would take lifetimes to review and would be an infinite task. The task for humanity is to learn as fast as possible and help support people through the ageing of the brain and the rest of the body. Things which are bad for ageing can quickly be stopped and things which help can be shared and adopted quickly. Healthcare systems need fluidity to absorb this support needed by people.
PS. There is more to life than being alive.
Brain aging is a protective mechanism that was a crucial element in the development of human society. Unlike the skin or the gut, which have constant turnover, or bones, which have the ability to accommodate new challenges through destruction and repair, the brain’s unique approach to development, application, and degradation creates a social context from which human society developed. Embrace the brain’s unique life cycle, rather than rejecting it.
Of course, the brain is affected by diseases principally characterized by defects in its repair mechanisms, whether they be failures to recycle defective structures or over-active recycling of structural components like the myelin sheathing, and you should repair those defects.
The pathology and symptoms of age-associated chronic neurodegenerative diseases result from multiple decades of biological changes, the precise nature and rate of which vary significantly between individuals. To gain insights into biological triggers and/or adaptive responses that can inform therapeutics to slow the progression of the disease, studies must begin early – prior to disease diagnosis. A pragmatic place to start is to conduct natural history studies with multi-modal assessment (imaging, genomics, biochemical, digital & clinical monitoring, environmental factors, etc.) in at-risk versus low-risk populations with the largest sample size possible in world-wide, collaborative studies.
Many markers of disease progression (biochemical, genomic, imaging, clinical, etc.) show high inter-individual variability. If a large enough sample size exists, one could take advantage of the “tails” of biomarker changes to study individuals in each tail further to characterize biological mechanisms and clinical characteristics. This is feasible only if large studies could be undertaken globally on a set of agreed upon and promising markers of progression through collaborative research and focus on changing the course of the disease.
That’s it. Got an alien perspective you would like to share? Write it in the comments below.
The featured image is called EarthRise
“Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”
–William Anders, Apollo 8, December 24, 1968
Courtesy of NASA (source)