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How to Perform Research with the Right Tools

There is no doubt all the methodologies mentioned in Dr. Greek’s piece are appropriate tools to use with the goal of advancing human health.  I will note that these were all developed by scientists, used by scientists, and actively funded by NIH.  But tools are only appropriate under certain circumstances and to answer specific questions.   The fact that a screwdriver is good for some jobs does not invalidate the fact that a hammer is good for others.

The central question in neuroscience is how does the brain work.  None of the methods put forward by Dr. Greek is useful to address this question.  To understand how the brain works we need to be able to understand how neurons communicate, how they store and process information.   The tools need to be able to tap the working of the brain at the cellular level on spatial scales of micrometers and temporal scales of milliseconds.   There is no method that allows such fine spatial and temporal resolution and is noninvasive so it could be applied in humans.

Noninvasive methods in humans, such as imaging, are useful to pinpoint which regions of the brain might be involved in some cognitive tasks.  For example, we might be able to pinpoint the location of regions involved in the visual recognition of faces, but such data will not tell us how is that the brain recognizes faces, nor what happens in prosopagnosia -- a disorder where patients fail to recognize faces.

It seems evident that understanding how the brain works will help us in understanding what happens when it fails.   An understanding of how any machinery works is a good place to start if you plan on fixing it. Perhaps Dr. Greek thinks that understanding how the brain works is not a scientific question that is worth of our time and effort.  Maybe he thinks that the way other animals see or store memories is completely different than the way it happens in humans.  How the brain works is considered by most scientists one of the most important questions in biological sciences.

Dr. Greek states that the likelihood our research to generate new therapies and cures is very low.  But how does he compute such probability?  And when he says it is very low, low compared to what?  Without making explicit such calculations his statements are completely meaningless.

Dr. Greek says we should fund nanotechnology.  We should indeed ...  and UCLA has one of the best institutes in the country.   But 20 years ago the field was in its infancy, and only today we see the potential applications of nanotechnology could have to medicine, in particular in new drug delivery mechanisms.   Was Dr. Greek able to predict the potential applications of nanotechnology to medicine back then?  No, he was not.  Why should we believe he can predict the potential application of any other field?  

Here are some pertinent questions.  What about string theory?  Should we fund it?  I mean, after all, one may argue physicists have gone for 100 years trying to unify the laws of physics and they have so far failed.   Many ideas have been proposed, tested and discarded.   Why should we continue investing in string theory?  It is all funds that we could use for something else.  What about space exploration?  Why should we fund it?  What tangible benefits have we obtained form watching those (admittedly beautiful but rather pricey) images from the Hubble telescope?  

The answer is that all these disparate scientific endeavors have had tremendous positive impact on our well being and health.  NASA technology developed for space exploration generated the gadgets you hold in your hand today, freeze dried food, and sophisticated medical imaging devices, among many spin-offs of space technology.

That’s how science works.  Intricate and unexpected connections arise among fields in ways nobody could have ever predicted...  Not even Dr. Greek.


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