Posted on: July 22, 2018
Contributed by: David DiSalvo
The big brain science stories of 2017 included new reveals about psychedelic drugs, how bacteria influence the brain, the realities of brain trauma, potential Alzheimer’s treatments, what marijuana does in the brain besides getting you high, and much more. As is true every year, it’s impossible to summarize all the highlights, so what follows is a sampling of the big brain news covered here along with a few additional stories that made 2017 a memorable year in brain science.
Psychedelics – the proof is mounting (and groovy).
In 2017 we saw more research advancing the cause of psychedelic drugs to treat conditions resistant to traditional treatments, depression at the top of the list. Just a few years ago this line of research still seemed like a throwback to the early, haphazard days of LSD experiments (electric Kool-Aid anyone?), but with research from the last year, it’s officially time to take psychedelic alternatives seriously. What comes next is hard to predict, since these substances are all DEA-scheduled in the U.S. (making research difficult), but the results to-date support the argument for much more investigation and testing (one of the drugs from this class, ketamine, is already on its way to becoming a game-changer in the antidepressant market).
Alzheimer’s – slowing the brain destroyer.
Alzheimer’s research moved forward on multiple fronts in 2017. We’re closer to understanding the particular mechanisms that lead to the disease, which is opening new doors to potential treatments. Even the most optimistic outlook has to place what we know about Alzheimer’s and how to stop it still in the beginning phase, but the effort and resources invested to slow this devastating disease are starting to pay off. And they must, because we also learned that the rate of new Alzheimer’s cases is increasing faster than we thought, and a larger swath of the population has it than we knew.
Bacteria and the brain – mind the gut.
We can now say with confidence that the gut microbiome influences the brain, earning its popular moniker, “the second brain.” This past year saw significant strides in understanding the gut-brain axis, as researchers continue deconstructing how the vast bacterial universe in our digestive system interacts with the central control center above. But, we also learned that we’re far from understanding how to influence the gut-brain axis with probiotics—or if that’s even possible (despite the marketing machine claiming otherwise).
Sleep – the gift that keeps on giving.
Sleep, a perennial favorite subject of brain researchers, revealed yet more secrets in 2017, including its influence on memory and decision making, and what happens in our brains when we don’t get enough. While the reveals are never entirely new where sleep is concerned, it’s remarkable that this topic—so basic to all of us—gains research momentum year after year. There’s so much more to understand about sleep and why it’s central to our physical and mental health, the next year is sure to deliver more answers, and more questions.
Marijuana – the findings just keep coming.
2017 may go down as the year marijuana brain research came into its own. Helped by the legalization movement, research has been stripping the shroud from this long-vilified plant, and what we’re seeing is nothing short of amazing. Marijuana may slow brain aging, and it’s likely a better migraine remedy than anything available behind the pharmacist’s counter—to mention just two examples. We could also see refined compounds from the plant being used to treat anxiety with fewer side effects than standard treatments. Much more to come in the next year, assuming the research is allowed to continue.
Brain training – the verdict is in.
Many have held out hope that brain training, which is on track to become a $10 billion industry, actually improves the brain in the specific ways its creators claim—memory, processing speed, mental acuity and concentration, especially. But in 2017 we saw evaluations of the research to-date revealing that the claims made for most forms of brain training aren’t supported by the results. In some cases brain training sharpens the specific ability used in that game (i.e. a memory game makes you better at figuring out the memory tricks to get better at the game itself), but beyond that there’s no “far transfer” — that is, there’s no evidence that your memory overall is improved, or that you can export the specific skills from the game into other memory applications. One notable comprehensive review of the research showed that of the many brain training packages studied, only two showed verifiable results, both with respect to visual processing speed. That’s at least something, and maybe those packages have tapped into features that the larger industry can build on, but the big claims being made for the majority of what’s now on the market don’t match the sales pitch.
Concussions – now we know for sure.
With research on concussions and brain trauma from the last year, we simply can no longer deny that football causes long-term brain trauma in many who play the game. Even the biggest fans (myself included) can’t ignore the evidence, which has been accumulating for the past few years and reached a new level in 2017. Research also uncovered more about the implications of brain trauma experienced during military service, and how this may relate to conditions like PTSD. What should happen next has more than a single answer. For one–custodians of football at all levels, from Pop Warner to the NFL, are on notice to take continued action. Playing football is a choice, but that doesn’t mean it has to be terminal.
TMS – changing the brain from the outside.
In 2017 we saw promising new advances in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) (using external magnetic coils to influence areas of the brain) and related therapies like Transcranial Focused Ultrasound (TFU). Like psychedelic research, this research has a throwback flavor, because studies on changing the brain with electricity and magnets date back decades. The difference now is that we understand much more about brain area functions, and the precision of the therapies is immensely improved. The research suggests that it’s possible to influence our memory with external stimulation, and potentially even reverse addiction. The findings have so far been intriguing, but the big advances are yet to come.
Sugar – the culprit we suspected.
While we’re stacking up years of research showing why excess sugar is damaging to our bodies, understanding what it’s doing to our brains is a relatively new undertaking. In the past year we learned a few things that should alarm us, including the possible link between excess dietary sugar and depression. This is one of those topics that you just know is going to reveal more in the coming years, and the findings should compel action. Don’t be surprised if we’re eventually shocked about what we didn’t know about sugar and the brain.
Smartphones – what are you doing to us…really?
Closing out this year’s big brain stories, we have to include the one that’s probably in your hand as we speak. It’s getting harder to count how many articles use terms like “smartphone addiction,” and it’s understandable why the alarms are sounding. The truth is we understand some of the fundamental brain dynamics that our gadgets are tapping into, but we don’t fully understand the implications of this unprecedented level of digital immersion. Are we really all addicts or addicts in the making? Have tech companies tricked us into indulging our compulsions to the point of no return? Is our ability to control our attention in jeopardy because we’ve unwittingly given permission to skillful manipulators to chisel it away? All of these questions and more deserve answers. In 2017 we found a few, but there’s a level of urgency around this topic that demands we know more.