In 1997 the spacecraft Cassini was launched by NASA from the United States. Cassini’s mission was to travel to Saturn and record as much information as possible about that distant planet. The campaign to explore the vast outer solar system was underway.

Seven years earlier, in 1990, the US National Institutes of Health declared that the remaining 10 years of the 20th century would be known as the “Decade of the Brain”. The goal of that research initiative was to explore the inner universe of human behavior. To a great extent this mission was made possible by two developments: new imaging devices such as CatScans, PetScans and MRI’s that revealed the inner structures and workings of the human brain in a level of detail never before possible and the development of sophisticated new pharmaceutical compounds that targeted difficult to treat mental conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and learning disorders.

As the Cassini mission came to its fiery conclusion recently I was struck by the similarity between these two endeavors that capped the end of the last millennium. Each represents the innate human desire to explore: one was searching for clues as to the origin of our universe; the other was looking to unravel the complex inner workings of our brains.

Cassini documented the rich and vibrant world on and around Saturn, photographing giant storms on the planet surface, unraveling the mysteries of the orbiting rings, and discovering lakes of liquid methane and hidden oceans where cascading plumes of hot water, some containing elements essential to creating primitive forms of life.

The hopes for the Decade of the Brain were similar to those of the Cassini mission: to examine up close and in sharper focus familiar but still alien terrain. The surfaces and structures of the brain that drive human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors were to be plumbed to learn how they functioned and were interconnected.

What was learned after 10 years was astounding and shattered many long held beliefs. For example:
• The human brain is able to change (neuroplasticity) regardless of age.
• Parenting greatly affects brain development and function in children
• Mental disorders are likely due to information transmission problems from one or more areas of the brain to others
• Specific genes – sometimes a single one- can cause mental disorders.

In addition, the Decade of the Brain led to the development of more sophisticated and highly target medications, including the so-called second generation antidepressant and antipsychotic medications that are more effective and have fewer side affects. During this same period, newer and more effective talk therapies also emerged, most notably Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. Other BPD treatments soon followed, such STEPPS and Mentalization Based Therapy, disproving the notion that BPD is untreatable, an ill-informed belief that unfairly stigmatized the disorder.

Projects like Cassini advanced our understanding of the outer world all of humanity lives in. Inner space exploration contributed to a greater understanding of the world that lies within.

“Cassini is really one of those quintessential missions from NASA,” said Thomas H. Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “It hasn’t just changed what we know about Saturn, but how we think about the world.”

The same might also be said of the Decade of the Brain.

“When the Decade of the Brain began in 1990, scientists had developed both drug and behavioral treatments for most mental disorders, but their understanding of these disorders was primitive. Two decades later, neuroscientists are finally uncovering the brain processes involved in mental disorders. There is great promise for development of more effective treatments in the upcoming decade”. Thomas R. Insel, M.D., Former Director, National Institute of Mental Health

See amazing images of Cassini’s journey of discovery.

Experts talk about the latest thinking about BPD.

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