study of the brain can direct researchers and health care professionals toward the prevention of many illnesses, bringing a halt to the ravages that such illnesses visit on millions of patients every year. Enoch Gordis adds another answer: The findings of neuroscience have been vital to recent gains in understanding the addictive disorders, from the genetic and environmental factors that figure into addictions to a clearer view of how drugs (including alcohol) act on the brain and how the injurious cycle of substance abuse can best be treated.
Besides the direct application of its findings, neuroscience offers something that is of the greatest value in advanced research today: an overview. The broad perspective of neuroscience makes it possible to bring together disparate problems under a single unifying principle. Specific problems then fall into place as variations on the common principle, each with its appropriate context and function. An example is the action of lithium on brain cells—well established as an effective treatment for manic-depressive illness, but one whose mode of action is not yet completely understood. The strongest hypothesis at present is that lithium works by interfering with the brain's synthesis of a vitamin called inositol. This substance appears to act as part of a chain of chemical signals that affect mood; as a vitamin, though, it is also crucial in embryonic development, and its blockage during a pregnancy can lead to birth defects. Thus, an older observation —that lithium can be harmful during pregnancy—may be explained by the compound's interference with inositol.
As another example, the level of calcium in cells can vary widely across regions of the brain and is often a major factor in healthy functioning. Many kinds of cells can take up calcium, but some are unable to remove it again (for example, the neurons of the hippocampus, a brain structure thought to be responsible for short-term memory). As a result, calcium accumulates and eventually destroys the cell. The inability to remove calcium may offer a clue to disorders that involve overactivity in certain brain regions, such as epilepsy, and to some degenerative disorders as well. In many other areas of brain research, too, neuroscience provides a unifying principle for tackling a problem from several angles at once: in the study of brain tumors, injuries of the brain and spinal cord, and dementias