The most mysterious organ

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2013

• At the University of New England, the focus is on pain. Last year, UNE received a $10 million grant from the NIH (the largest award in the university's history) to study chronic pain and how to treat it.

"There are a lot of misconceptions around chronic pain," says Ed Bilsky, vice president for research and scholarship at the University of New England and director of UNE's Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences. "Until you experience chronic pain you just can't relate to that person who's being impacted by it." Without any diagnostic tests to run, doctors often must rely solely on the patient's reporting — which doesn't necessarily help elucidate either what caused the pain or how to stop it. "By understanding the brain at a more fundamental level, we'll be able to diagnose and treat it more effectively. Hopefully we'll even be able to prevent and cure certain types of chronic pain."

•Rachael Hannah, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Maine Presque Isle, is studying how people can recover from traumatic brain injuries. With the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, a non-profit research institution, Hannah is trying to develop a traumatic brain injury model in zebrafish (which are widely used for such research due to some genetic similarities to humans, as well as regenerative abilities). "We don't really know how the brain works enough to know how to help [TBI sufferers] recover," she says. "Hopefully zebrafish can help us."

To be sure, the brain is a fertile jungle for researchers, but everyone acknowledges that coming to a deeper understanding of its inner workings will require a significant investment of both money and time.

"Even in a much simpler system, like a fruit fly or a mouse, it's still a very difficult challenge," Bilsky points out, referencing the entire BRAIN Initiative. "This will take a long period of time."

Indeed, Mokler is even more dubious (or realistic, depending on your outlook): "It's such an immensely complicated thing," he says. "It'll be a real challenge to ever figure out exactly how it works." ^

Brainy bits

HE'S NO BRAINIAC

When it comes to brain-mapping, let's leave Maine state representative Kenneth Fredette (R-Newport) out of the conversation. He obviously has no idea how brains work. Consider this brilliant insight, uttered by Fredette in the context of Medicaid expansion: "From the other side of the aisle I hear the conversation being about 'free this is free, we need to take it and it's free and we need to do it now' and that's sort of the fundamental message that my brain receives," Fredette said. "Now, my brain being a man's brain sort of thinks differently, because I say, well, it's not if it's free is it really free because I say in my brain there's a cost to this." Ugh.

BRAIN GAMES

The state's first-ever Brain Bee, associated with the International Brain Bee, a not-for-profit neuroscience competition designed especially for high school students that tests their understanding of brains and the nervous system and how they work together, was scheduled for February, 2013, in Machias. Unfortunately, due to logistical complications, it didn't happen. But organizers, including UMPI's Rachael Hannah, hope to revive the event next year. In the meantime, Hannah has participated in other community outreach events in an effort to engage local students; as part of this year's Brain Awareness Month (March), she co-coordinated a NeuroArt Night, during which participants could learn about brain mapping and then paint ceramic plaster brains.

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