Gingrich discusses brain research, disease at UD
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 01:04
Instead of making a campaign stop to attract support in Delaware’s state primary on Tuesday, Republican primary candidate Newt Gingrich met with university scientists to discuss the future of brain research on Thursday.
Gingrich, a former history professor at West Georgia College, met with scientists from the university and Delaware State University and other professionals in the Alzheimer’s disease research field. While working on the Alzheimer’s Study Group, an independent research group that encouraged lawmakers to devote more funding toward learning about the disease, he determined that the scientific community does not properly understand how the brain works.
However, he thinks increased studies could be life-changing for those with autism and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
“I think it’s one of the great potential breakthroughs in the next 20 years,” Gingrich said. “It changes the quality of life, it changes the length of life and dramatically lowers federal spending.”
He said one of his legislative goals is to transform the Food and Drug Administration in a manner that allows drugs to be approved for sale more easily.
Gingrich also called for increased research spending on disorders like autism and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Gingrich said researchers face a challenge while studying the brain because the nervous system is very complex, which can make scientific discoveries more difficult to achieve.
“There are about as many neurons in one brain as there are stars in the universe,” he said.
Obtaining funding for brain research can be difficult, according to Melissa Harrington, a biology professor at Delaware State University, who spoke at Thursday’s event.
Harrington said senior researchers and professors tend to receive the most funding from the government and the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ medical research agency, which can cause a disproportionate allocation of funding to other projects.
“Twenty-five states have 90 percent of the money but don’t have 90 percent of the ideas,” Harrington said. “One thing that I think would help is if we reverse the concentration of big bets on big institutions and senior people.”
Gingrich suggested that the NIH create a rule that 20 percent of grants must go to those who are under 40 years old and will serve as principal investigator.
He said if the traditional model of research was redesigned, it could lead to more innovation.
“The very decentralized, entrepreneurial model would allow people to go off and be their own boss and dramatically changes the length of research,” Gingrich said. “There’s a reason that [Albert] Einstein said had he actually gotten a faculty position, he would not have [taken it]. He needed the isolation.”
Professor Stuart Binder-MacLeod, chairman of the physical therapy department at the university, said it is often difficult to get research approved. He said he is working on a non-invasive, brain-stimulating device, and said he has been waiting several months for approval from a local institution.
Gingrich jokingly suggested an alternate way to test the device to avoid FDA obstacles.
“The trick might be to make it a toy, because there’s no FDA regulations,” Gingrich said.
Binder-MacLeod said better understanding the relationship between the brain and muscles could help people suffering from paralysis. He cited a friend, who is a Newark resident, who uses a computer to translate his thoughts into words, a process that takes six to seven seconds to generate each word.
“Could you imagine, if we knew more about the brain, if we had greater computational power, rather than taking six seconds to generate each letter, we could generate six letters a second, how that would impact his productivity?” he said.
Gingrich predicts health care to be the largest market in the 21st century and he foresees rapid expansion in the field.
“If we break through on brain science, the degree to which that it will both save lives and save people, and at the same time save money, would be beyond anybody’s current comprehension,” Gingrich said. “I think the U.S. has an enormous potential.”