The day I applied for my Research Master at Maastricht University, my hope was to get accepted into the Fundamental Neuroscience track. But what is Fundamental Neurosciences, and why was that the track of my choice amongst the other equally interesting tracks?
By definition, fundamental or basic neuroscience is research looking into the underlying mechanisms governing psychological processes like memory, psychiatric diseases like depression and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, my fascination with miniaturism or the surprising power of small, encouraged me to pursue this specialisation. I was intrigued, I wanted to dig deep and discover answers, lots of them. For example I always wondered how neurons, the brain’s building blocks, fire and communicate with one another during memory encoding and retrieval. How the brain communicates with the rest of the body during painful experiences. And how a meaningful lifetime event can contribute to mental disorders via small biological changes?
Nevertheless, the findings that result from answering such questions are translated from bench to bedside, from the laboratory to the clinic. This is also known as translational or applied research, another trending area in neuroscientific research, which aims to improve the symptoms of a devastating mental disorder or even curing a neurological disease in patients.
It is needless to say, that to conduct research of any kind, scientists must address 'the talk'. The money talk. No research will ever see the light of day if no funding was granted to the research in question. In order to do so, researchers must put all their effort in convincing the financial sponsors of the importance and significance of the research project. To be more specific: researchers must sell their research.
Unfortunately this comes at a cost of what is known as ‘Funding Bias’. Let’s take a look at this chain of events: (1) Financial sponsors tend to encourage research that mostly suits their interests; (2) Financial sponsors tend to encourage research that is most likely to offer financial gain, in the short-term; (3) Applied research is more prone to validating drug use, in the context of pharmacotherapy; (4) Pharmacotherapy is costly, and hence call for financial gains for financial sponsors.
As a result research that fulfils these requirements is more likely to get funding and therefore more likely to be transferred into practical use. The shift from bench to bedside is biased, and will injure the neuroscientific community.
It is pitiful to say that we are far from having fully understood the nature of mental disorders. We are still constantly discovering new unforeseen insights and reinvestigating old unresolved findings. We need to be aware that this biased shift holds serious consequences, greater impairments and ineffective progression. I am not here advocating the end of translational research, I am here to emphasis on the importance of fundamental research, on the establishment of a solid ground before moving too quickly into “curing" diseases, and eventually suffering from the numerous faux-pas along the way. We all want to see neurosciences progress into preventing or even alleviating diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Depression, but we can’t be fooled by the rapid progress in technology, by our human greed and fall into traps that will only set us backwards in time.
Katherine C. Bassil