by Gene Robinson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In the year 2034, we will have solved a fundamental mystery of the brain: how past experience affects future behavior. This discovery could help reduce instances of mental illness and help more Americans live healthier, more productive lives.
Why does this matter? Too many people struggle with debilitating conditions like depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Once we better understand the connections between our past experiences and the changes in gene activity that cause these diseases, we will be better able to treat specific brain ailments.
My optimism has an unlikely source: the honey bee. Bees, like humans, live in a complex society, influenced by what others around them do. Studies from my laboratory reveal that, when a bee reacts to its environment, the activity of many of its genes also undergo changes. This, in turn, can cause bees to significantly alter their behavior. Similar responses to environmental changes are found in many other species, including humans. If we can learn to identify the “molecular fingerprint” these changes leave behind, we may be able to address a number of brain impairments. However, to get there, we must first develop better tools and techniques to enable our understanding of this information.
We are developing those tools at the University of Illinois, where the National Science Foundation-funded CompGen Initiative brings together genomic biologists, bioinformaticians, computer scientists, and engineers to create new computational methods and devices. So long as the federal government sustains its investment in this field, we will become fluent in the language of the genome. In fact, we may ultimately be able to reverse damage to the brain—whether that damage was caused by disease or by circumstance.
Obviously, this breakthrough will significantly reduce the cost of treating chronic illness. Yet even more inspiring is the possibility of a world in which no person must fear that his or her mental anguish is untreatable. Understanding the mysteries of the brain means that every person, regardless of childhood deprivation, traumatic experience, or genetic malfunction, can reach his or her full potential.
Gene E. Robinson, an entomologist, is the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, Swanlund Chair, and the Center for Advanced Study Professor in Entomology and Neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.