Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Present status and future prospects of Brain-Science & Education
In 1996, the Japan Science and Technology Co. (JST) sponsored the Trans-disciplinary Symposium on Environmental Analysis and Measurement, held over four days in Sapporo. The symposium brought home the importance of considering the brain in environmental science and the interrelationship between the two. While knowledge of the epigenetic processes of the brain, or learning in other words, is a key to understanding the nature of the brain and human society, many environmental problems are due to the excessive production of artifacts as projections of the human brain. This consideration led to the concept of “brain-science & education”. A further 4-day international symposium Trans-disciplinary Symposium on Developing the Brain: Science of Learning and Education was held in Oiso, right at the end of the 20 Century, under the auspices of the same sponsor.
The most important by-product of this symposium was the launching of a Brain-Science & Education program by JST in 2001. From that year until 2003, we commenced nine projects covering various aspects of the new trans-disciplinary field that we call brain-science & education. Of the nine, eight were cross-sectional studies. In 2004, we enlarged the organization and changed the structure to consist of two programs under the names Brain-Science & Education Type I and Brain-Science & Education Type II. The Type I program is for cross-sectional studies and the Type II program is for longitudinal studies. We added three new projects within the Type I program and started the Type II program with six projects. Almost all of the projects are strongly dependent on non-invasive brain function imaging. Each project theme was selected through a competitive bidding system: the program coordinator sets a general field, and teams propose specific lines of research. Selected teams then receive grants. In each application process, we have had to choose from among a number of worthwhile projects, all having keen, capable, and experienced leaders.
We have a strong commitment to the concept of trans-disciplinarity; that is, we encourage research that transcends borders between completely different fields to arrive at new syntheses. Almost all of the projects involve close collaboration between brain scientists and educators. However, we wished to expand the scope of collaboration by creating bridges between scientists and scholars on the one hand and practitioners (teachers and clinicians) on the other. For this reason, we have also started a large-scale cohort study called the Japan Children’s Study (JCS) as a separate top-down program. The objectives of this study are to elucidate the developmental mechanisms behind “sociability” and apply developmental and behavioral cognitive neuroscience to identify factors that make a nurturing environment suitable or unsuitable for babies and children. A two-year pilot study commenced this year and will be followed by the study proper. The development of 10,000 babies and children is to be followed over 10 years (full and formal acceptance has been obtained for a five-year cohort study; this is to be followed by evaluation). All of the programs are coordinated by the Center for Research on Brain-Science and Society within the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX). We nominated the six themes listed below for projects to operate within the Brain-Science & Education Type II program.
1. Twin studies to clarify points of contact between genetic and epigenetic processes.
2. Studies of emotion intended to uncover mechanisms responsible for the will to learn.
3. Mechanisms of second-language acquisition.
4. Techniques for the early diagnosis of learning disabilities (including autism).
5. Preventing and intervening in dementia.
6. Gene-chip methodology to find out how environmental stimuli drive mRNA expression.
Where this is useful or required, the longitudinal cohort studies are to include further prospective or retrospective (generally prospective) follow-up studies based on completely noninvasive higher-order brain-function imaging or other techniques for observing brain functions.
We are also fostering collaboration between the project teams while ensuring that the originators get the credit for new ideas. The large-scale cohort study, the Japan Children’s Study, is to be linked with follow-up studies.
Human cohort studies based on the concept of brain-science & education are likely to have three major sets of implications.
1. Human cohort studies based on brain science are expected to produce scientific evidence that will contribute to policy-making, especially on education and related issues that pose serious problems for modern human society. For example, we might uncover implications for policy on childcare, school education, or aging.
2. We will be able to assess the potential effects of new technologies on babies, children, and adolescents. For example, while humans had no experience of electronic information technology until very recent times, we have little idea whether or not such technology affects the human brain and mind. If it does have effects, we need to find out what they are.
3. Human cohort studies will allow us to test hypotheses drawn from animal and genetic case studies to see if they actually apply to people. The results of animal studies can neither conclusively prove nor disprove the validity of the hypothesis. Also, while a number of recent animal studies have indicated links between behavior and the expression of particular genes, we have no idea whether these findings have implications for human development.
Through these projects, we intend to apply trans-disciplinary methods in the pursuit of greater human security and well-being.