Brain scientists dream up international research partnershipby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Minnesota could become the next hub for brain research and treatments.
Brain researchers are reaching out to one another in an effort to move their field forward at the "Brain Science: The Next Frontier" conference, hosted at the University of Minnesota this week. Conference organizers have proposed creating a new International Center of Excellence in Brain Research. It would be a joint research and collaboration between Minnesota and Norway. A group of scientists, investors and policymakers are drumming up support for the idea.
In the proposed research partnership, Norwegian researchers would get access to state-of-the-art technology that they currently don't have.
Minnesota is well-known for its collection of powerful magnets used in medical imaging, its vibrant medical device industry and its commitment to medical research, said Stein Lorentzen-Lund, CEO of the Nansen Neuroscience.
"It has a great university. It has a lot of capabilities and capacities that we don't have. So, we're a small country, but then we can work with these large groups with specialists," he said.
In return, Minnesota researchers could tap into Norway's biobanks — an extensive collection of blood, urine and tissue samples that can help scientists better understand diseases and possible treatments.
Biobanks were created to enhance Norway's public health care system. Lorentzen-Lund said most of his countrymen are proud of their biobanks and believe they are contributing to the greater good by voluntarily submitting biological samples.
"In Norway in certain areas, large areas, you have 60 to 90 percent of the population have participated in these databases, these biobanks," Lorentzen-Lund said. "And in certain areas, you now have data back to 15, 20 and 30 years where you can follow people."
Access to this type of information would be particularly helpful to Aviva Abosch, a neurosurgeon at the University of Minnesota who recently launched a deep-brain stimulation project to treat patients with depression.
Medications don't always work for many depressed people, Abosch said. As her project progresses, she will be able to compare her results against other patients in her clinic. Abosch said it would be much more useful to examine long-term data from a biobank that may contain robust data about entire families with depression.
"Being able to ask questions about a whole cohort of people who have a particular disease is a very useful way of investigating a particular illness."
Biobanks can also be used to track differences between entire populations of people.
A biobank could reveal some striking differences between the incidence of brain diseases in the U.S. and Norway, said Dr. Husseini Manji, head of all neuroscience research at Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey.
"Can we by studying different populations even get insights as to okay why is it? Is it a genetic difference? Is it an environmental difference? Is it a lifestyle difference?" Manji said. "So it's an invaluable resource."
Efforts to build more collaboration among researchers are not new. But advances in the brain sciences have lagged many other areas of medical research, in part because of the complexity of studying and treating conditions of the brain.
Conference organizer Ellen Ewald said recent advances in medical imagining have revolutionized neuroscience. She hopes that new opportunities for collaborations with Norway will do the same.
"There's been too much silo research going on, where research groups kind of hold on to their data, don't share with other research groups that are studying other diseases and some of these diseases are on the same continuum. And we need to really open up and have scientists talk to each other," Ewald said.
Minnesota wouldn't be the only hub for brain research in the U.S. Collaborations are already underway at in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C.
- Morning Edition, 11/04/2011, 6:44 a.m.