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The Progress of Brain Research: How Many Small Steps Eventually Lead to Breakthroughs

The need for research is urgent, but scientific progress is often slow. Learn more about the timeline of brain research and how incremental progress leads to breakthroughs.

At the American Brain Foundation, we know that research is the only way we will find new treatments, prevention strategies, and cures for the full spectrum of brain diseases and disorders. The millions of people who are living with brain disease or have a loved one with brain disease need these treatments now—however, the pace of scientific progress is slow and gradual. 

It’s a painful truth that the breakthroughs that make a difference in people’s lives often take a long time. Maintaining hope for the future means empathizing with the urgent need for progress right now while recognizing that breakthroughs do not happen overnight. Read on to learn what the actual timeline of scientific progress often looks like and see examples of research breakthroughs that have happened as a result. 

The Jigsaw Puzzle of Research: How Incremental Progress Leads to Cures

Scientific progress is not linear. In a perfect world, a researcher would set out to explore one specific question, and throughout the course of their project, they would find the answer. In reality, the research process is much more complex. Often researchers will set out to find the answer to one question and in the course of their study will find multiple other questions that need answers. 

It can be helpful to think about research and scientific progress like doing a large puzzle with hundreds of pieces. At first, all the pieces seem jumbled and the final picture—the new insight or treatment being sought—is not clear. As you work on the puzzle, certain parts of the picture slowly start to come together, and you see how certain pieces fit together while others don’t. Each piece of the puzzle builds on the pieces before it, eventually forming a full, clear picture at the end. 

Research works similarly: One research study may yield what seems like a very small insight or bit of very specific information, but this is what enables the next study to start just a little bit closer to the end goal (treatments and cures). With time, each study gives us a deeper understanding of the brain and takes us one step closer to breakthroughs that will eventually lead to cures and transform lives.

Types of Scientific Progress

Progress can happen in many different ways, and often research contributes to slow, gradual progress in one disease area while also enabling discoveries in another field. For example, a study that offers an explanation for a specific symptom of one disease may also provide data that helps scientists understand the causes behind another. 

A report published by the National Institutes of Health outlines several distinct but often overlapping ways in which research results in scientific progress:

Discovery

Possibly the most obvious type of progress happens when researchers uncover new information that changes the way we understand a disease, biological process, or other topic of research. Occasionally, discoveries can be sudden, major breakthroughs—but more often they are small, specific insights that enable us to approach a scientific question in a new way and armed with new knowledge.

For example, in recent decades researchers have begun to better understand the role that brain inflammation plays in the formation of Alzheimer’s disease. The discovery that individuals with Alzheimer’s often have significant signs of brain inflammation—including in brain cells called microglia and astrocytes, which play a key role in the brain’s inflammation response—has opened up new avenues for research. 

Ongoing research continues to explore the role of neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s, and researchers are now investigating treatment strategies with the potential to reduce inflammation and slow disease progression.

Analysis

Research can also result in the development of tools, investigation methods, and new sets of data and other resources that enable future studies to uncover insights that would otherwise be impossible. For example, the mapping of the entire human genome in the 1990s and early 2000s created an invaluable resource for researchers and enabled scientists to identify specific genetic mutations that cause or increase risk for particular brain diseases.

More recently, an international team of scientists compiled a “brain atlas” containing high-resolution maps of over 3,000 different brain cells across all major regions of the brain. These brain maps show in unprecedented detail how regions of the brain are connected and where different cell types are located. While this project itself did not result in any new treatments, it offers future researchers a valuable resource for exploring how specific brain diseases start and progress through the brain, which will aid in diagnosis and treatment for a range of diseases. 

Explanation

Often studies will contribute a small amount of new information that helps researchers in the field better understand or explain a particular disease, symptoms, treatment, or other trend. Rarely does one study fully explain the causes of a particular disease. Rather, many studies that each contribute their own small piece of the puzzle eventually build toward a broader understanding of disease formation and treatment.    

For example, it took many different studies for researchers to finally identify that the primary causes of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease were clumps of abnormal proteins in the brain. However, this explanation opened up research that eventually linked different types of protein clumps to other neurodegenerative diseases like Lewy body dementia. 

Integration and Development 

Another common type of scientific progress is when research enables scientists to make links between multiple disease areas or even different fields of study. This type of progress is often linked to breakthroughs in therapies for specific diseases and the development of new approaches to treatment that can be applied across multiple disease areas. 

For example, the above discovery that misfolded proteins were responsible for Alzheimer’s disease led to the development of a number of new drugs that target amyloid proteins in the brain, including lecanemab, which was approved early in 2023. Similarly, Dr. Jerry Mendell’s development of a method of gene therapy for Type 1 SMA led to the same approach being applied to develop similar gene therapies for other neuromuscular diseases.

Brain Disease Researchers Need Ongoing Support

Research may be a gradual process, but it is the key to reaching our vision of life without brain disease. Continued funding is necessary to maintain the forward momentum of brain disease research and ensure the slow buildup of knowledge needed to make breakthroughs. 

We have seen evidence of sustained research resulting in progress in our own Next Generation Research Grant program. Srikant Rangaraju, MBBS, MS, received his first research grant funded by the Foundation in 2014 to study how specific cells in the brain’s immune system—called microglia—contribute to the formation and progression of brain diseases. Dr. Rangaraju was able to use findings from this early research to provide justification for further studies, and he was awarded additional grants from the National Institutes of Health in 2021 and 2022 to continue his work. Dr. Rangaraju is now leading a research group at Yale University and continues to build on findings from his past research.  

Researchers like Dr. Rangaraju would not be able to move forward with their work and continue to make vital progress in brain disease research without continued funding. With your help, we can provide funding for the incremental advancements in today’s brain research that will eventually lead to the treatments and cures of tomorrow. 

Interested in learning more? Read about six critical advancements in the history of brain disease research.

The American Brain Foundation is committed to supporting the next generation of brain disease researchers. By donating today you can help us achieve our vision of life without brain disease.