Parallels between exploring space and the brain

Published on 06 November 2019 Read 25 min

Space exploration and brain exploration, two fields that seem very distant on paper, actually have a lot in common and can each learn from the other for the future. Alcimed, whose mission is to explore and develop uncharted territories, had the pleasure of addressing this exciting subject at a conference at the end of 2018.

During Alcimed’s 25th anniversary celebrations on December 13, 2018, Jean-Claude Muller (former SVP of R&D at Sanofi and founder of the Medicen Paris competitiveness cluster) and Sylvestre Maurice (astrophysicist at IRAP and coordinator of the French part of the Curiosity program launched by NASA) answered questions from Luc Berger (Manager of the Health Business Unit at ALCIMED Paris) and discussed parallels and differences between these two worlds with respect to five major topics.

Historical perspectives

The sky and the mind are among the most fascinating and anguishing unknown lands of humanity. As in the face of all that is unknown, it is first the myths that have historically populated these imaginaries, making the sky the domain of the gods and certain diseases the expression of the devil before science began to take hold.

The exploration of the sky goes back to the dawn of time. Ptolemy (2nd century AD) is one of the first “astronomers”. He placed the Earth at the center of everything, surrounded by circles of planets and gods; a representation that was only revised in the 16th century by Nicolas Copernicus, who placed the Sun at the center of the universe. Many astronomers – still based on observations with the naked eye – would follow, rejecting, adapting and eventually adhering to the heliocentric model. Galileo at the beginning of the 17th century revolutionized the discipline with the first astronomical telescope and the foundations of experimental physics. The next technological revolution came in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite.

On the brain side, madness and epilepsy have been described since ancient times. However, it was only at the end of the 19th century, or even the beginning of the 20th century, that medical observers such as Charcot, Freud, Alzheimer, Golgi, Cajal, Dale, and Loewi explored the brain and its link with the psyche. Thanks to the first method of silver nitrate labeling, neurons and neurotransmitters could be identified. It is also a period of experimentation: many chemists test the functioning of the brain with substances extracted from nature, which would lead to the golden age of neuroscience between 1950 and 1975 with the discovery of the major therapeutic classes.

In these two fields, it is the synergy between eminent personalities, observation and technological advances that mark the beginning of science. Unlike sky exploration, brain exploration has suffered and still suffers to some extent from the difficulty of direct observation. It will take major technological advances for this system to become observable and begin to reveal its very first secrets.

Tools, concepts and methods- understanding the complexity

The first explorations revealed a significant level of complexity that required more sophisticated and reliable tools, methods and technologies to address it. The necessarily progressive development of these tools, concepts, and methods would be carried out in parallel with many failures in both disciplines.

From the 1980s, and under the impetus of new technologies, we discovered more precisely the neuron and its organization into networks via synapses. From that point on, neurosciences focused their interventions exclusively on this element that they could observe. This dogma of selectivity, which was the grail of cardiovascular medicine, has led and continues to lead to many failures. Later, it was the new fMRI imaging technologies and the PET Scan, followed by the opening of the mind to new concepts (glial cells, etc.) that triggered the new phases of progress after 1980.

In space exploration and access to space, particle physics and numerical simulations played the role of technological and scientific catalysts to advance our knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s. As in neurosciences, the imperfection of tools and concepts led to multiple failures such as several failed space launches (nearly half of Martian missions have been failures). Neurosciences have also failed in their achievements but also because of their assumptions, which again explains the delay in the phase between the two fields in terms of successes.

Discoveries and breakthroughs

As tools, methods, and concepts became more sophisticated, both disciplines generated fantastic discoveries. For space, the measurement of space-time makes it possible to understand the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang; the concept of comparative planetology allows us to better understand the objects of the Solar System as a whole, and in return to progress on the knowledge of a very particular object, the Earth. In neurosciences, the exploration of the involvement of glial cells plays a major role in the new understanding of certain pathologies. Today we are discussing the interactions between the brain and the immune system and microbiota. New digital imaging and simulation tools allow us to navigate the brain in the same way that Google Earth allows us to explore Earth.

Initially created by the strokes of genius of individuals, breakthroughs in these two fields are increasingly becoming the result of multidisciplinary collaborations between increasingly specific specialties that have been shaped to respond to complexity.

Structural organization of the field

Despite slower progress in neurosciences, the evolution of these two fields is following a similar path. The differences lie in the structural organization of these disciplines and in the forces that govern them. In both fields, the six major forces that shape all explorations (intellectual, economic, political, strategic, technological and societal knowledge) contribute to a different degree.

The major advances in space exploration are the result of technological advances but also of political support and the strategic challenges of each country. It is questionable whether, without Kennedy, American programs would have made the contribution they have in this area. On the other hand, the absence of an economic model for an “extraterrestrial conquest” makes this field highly dependent on state funding, regardless of the new arrival of private actors. It is ultimately the societal interest in a “spaceman” that makes these important expenses, which are incurred with the primary objective of a better understanding of the world, acceptable.

In the exploration of the brain, we also find technology as a primary factor that allows for progress through further miniaturization, simulation, and the convergence between science, medicine, computer science, and patient focus. Thanks to companies such as Akili, for example, video games may become a new form of therapy, replacing drugs. However, in contrast to space, economic power remains the dominant force. In this sense, the withdrawals of major pharmaceutical groups from Alzheimer’s disease research, for example, do a lot of damage in an area that depends largely on private entity funding, leaving room for new, more philanthropic players, such as Michael J. Fox or Bill Gates.

Outstanding challenges

The progress made in both of these fields since the initial observations is extraordinary. Today, these universes remain more populated with questions than answers; some are dizzying: “Does life exist elsewhere?”, “How do we explain that a person has a thought or develops an emotion?”, etc.

To date, only 4000 exo-planets (planets outside the Solar System) have been discovered, which is so few when you think of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, one of more than 100 billion galaxies in the Universe! Nevertheless, one of the most striking results of astronomy is that the planet Earth seems unique in our near universe. It is for this reason, according to Sylvestre Maurice, that the major challenge must, therefore, be to protect our planet. According to him, the spaceman will not exist.

On the other hand, from a neuroscientific point of view, the “augmented man” is a vision that is becoming more and more concrete. Nerve stimulation through headphones is already used in competitive sports or the military field. According to Jean-Claude Muller, the future key success factors in neurosciences are patient orientation, the importance of individual and collective data, predictive and precision medicine, genetic studies, attention to the patient’s ecological and cultural environment and the use of artificial intelligence to analyze the collected data. Additionally, moving away from the dogma of selectivity, including other disciplines and conducting epidemiological studies focused on the individual are for now the most promising areas for breakthroughs in neurosciences.

Evolution formed our solar system in 13.7 billion years and the modern man in 2.5 million years. Through these periods, an incredible complexity has accumulated, shedding light on some of the unknowns in the brain and space. Still, both of them remain sources of exploration for the future.

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