Insight Must Precede Application: The Importance of Basic Research

May 31, 2016

Insight Must Precede Application: The Importance of Basic Research

By Emma Yasinski

In 1976, Julius H. Comroe, Jr., formerly of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, and R.D. Dripps, then professor of anesthesia and vice president for health affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to identify the sources of the most important advances in cardiovascular-pulmonary medicine of the day. With the input of 90 cardiologists, they identified the 10 most important advances in the field, ranging from open-heart surgery to drugs that treat hypertension. Next, the two reviewed the developmental steps that led to these advances. They found that 42 percent of the steps that led to these advances were discoveries made by scientists who hadn’t set out to study these specific diseases. They were made by scientists, who instead, were conducting basic research into the function of organs, hormones, and molecules within the body.

Applied biomedical research tackles a particular disease in hopes of developing a treatment or cure for that disease. Basic research, on the other hand, sets out to expand the base of scientific knowledge, without immediately targeting a specific problem. Through basic neuroscience research, scientists at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) are building the foundation needed to treat and cure mental illness, developmental disorders and neurological diseases by increasing our understanding of how the brain functions at the electrophysiological, molecular, cellular and network levels. As they gain insight about how the brain functions, scientists everywhere can apply that knowledge to create better treatments for brain disease.

Researchers at MIT published a report in April 2015 titled “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit” discussing the need for increased funding of basic research and how to prevent the United States from falling behind other countries in terms of health, security, defense and economy. The first topic on the list: Alzheimer’s disease. With five million individuals already suffering from the debilitating disease, Medicare spends $150 billion per year on treatment. Scientists need a greater understanding of the inner-workings of the brain, how it ages and how diseases like Alzheimer’s develop. Yet due to increasing funding constraints, the National Institute on Aging can only fund six percent of the ideas it receives. Since 1968, funding for basic research has become less and less of a priority in the federal budget (see graph below.)


There are a few drugs on the market to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but even the best ones only benefit patients for a few months and none can stop the disease from progressing. Those suffering from the disease continue to lose their memories and other functions for the rest of their lives. Researchers at MPFI are seeking to understand how memories are formed and stored within the brain. Ryohei Yasuda, Ph.D., Scientific Director at MPFI conducts research on the molecular signals and structural changes that take place as neurons store new memories. Others at the institute are studying how hundreds, thousands and millions of neurons form networks to store information. Mechanical engineers are helping these researchers build tools that help them see more details than ever before. Equipped with this information, scientists will be better able to develop effective treatments for Alzheimer’s and other diseases that impact memory. These same insights may lead to better understanding of learning disabilities, cognitive impairment, addiction or concepts we may not even be able to imagine yet.

The payoff of basic science may be more difficult to immediately identify than the payoff of applied science, but that does not diminish its long-term potential. When funding is tight, we must not forget that the two are inevitably intertwined, and each will suffer without the other.

As Max Planck himself said, “Insight must precede application.”