This is the second of a series of blog posts on the context behind my Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system. There is a lot of backstory. So during the editing process, I sent documents to the editor to help explain some of the views I express in the article. I have decided to add them as blog posts.

The author, Alex, discusses their frustration with the lack of advanced brain measurement machines available for use in their treatment. They searched for non-invasive and direct methods to record action potentials in the brain, but the techniques they found were either poorly funded, invasive, or indirect. The BRAIN initiative was also found to be lacking in progress. Alex quotes a 2015 paper by a working group on the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons, which highlights the need for development in this area and the potential for revolutionary advances. As someone who is mentally ill, Alex was disappointed that progress had been slow and felt that a lot of hope had been taken away.

When things were pretty bad and no treatment had had a significant effect, I could not understand why no one was looking at my head. Where were all these magnificent brain measurement machines I had seen in the news and media growing up? My condition was so severe I was certain something would show up. I even asked one of the clinicians this (they did research as well as treatment and had an MRI machine on site), they replied: “we wouldn’t be able to interpret the images”. Which infuriated me as an experimentalist. Non-interpretable data is literally the start of any experimental investigation!

I wanted to see if there was hope for me in 5 or ten years time. I knew that the measurement device needed to be non-invasive and direct (to record the action potentials which encode information in the brain). I assumed this wasn’t possible now, but I wanted to see where we were. But every technique I found was either not well funded, invasive, had poor resolution or was indirect. I found the BRAIN initiative, but it only confirmed what I was seeing (more accurately, not seeing) in the literature. I’ve found this excerpt from a 2015 paper which sums it up quite well:

“In considering our charge and the current state of neuroscience, the Working group (WG) identified the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons as being particularly rich in opportunity, with potential for revolutionary advances. This area of research represents a real knowledge gap. We can now study the brain at very high resolution by examining individual genes, molecules, synapses and neurons, or we can study large brain areas at low resolution with whole-brain imaging. The challenge remaining is what lies in between—the thousands and millions of neurons that constitute functional circuits. Analysis of circuits is only one of many areas of neuroscience worthy of attention. However, the WG agreed that accelerating technology development in this area could drive a qualitative shift in what is possible, and progress in this area will benefit many other areas of neuroscience as well. The focus is not on technology per se, but on the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insight about how the nervous system functions in health and disease.”

As someone who is mentally ill, I thought the highlighted sentences were obvious. Why did it take so long and require a large and high level group of scientists to work it out? It broke my heart at the time. I felt like a lot of hope was taken away.