Israel has the ‘brains’ to solve brain problems, says US congressman

Israeli innovations in neuroscience are an inspiration to researchers around the world, according to Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania

US Congressman Chaka Fattah (left) meets with former Israeli president Shimon Peres (center) and Braintech chairman Rafi Gidron on March 11, 2015 (Courtesy)
US Congressman Chaka Fattah (left) meets with former Israeli president Shimon Peres (center) and Braintech chairman Rafi Gidron on March 11, 2015 (Courtesy)

The US congressman in charge of appropriating federal money for science and medical research and development programs is a big fan of Israeli efforts in the field, especially in the area of neuroscience.

“The US and Europe may have more breakthroughs in neuroscience, but you have to put that in perspective,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Democrat of Pennsylvania. “The US has 350 million people, and there are 28 countries in the European Union. Israel is third behind these countries in its neuroscience developments, but per capita it is way ahead of everyone.”

In an exclusive interview with The Times of Israel, Fattah, who was a keynote speaker at this week’s BrainTech 2015 event in Tel Aviv, was barely able to contain his admiration for Israel’s scientific and medical innovations and discoveries, especially in the neuroscience, a discipline he has taken a special interest in.

“Fifty million Americans have dementia and other brain illnesses. To gather together the minds that exist and see how we can tackle these ailments together, that is the work that is in front of us; to have a map of the human brain, an understanding of the roadways and an understanding of the traffic on the roadways,” Fattah said during a panel discussion on brain science initiatives around the world.

“I’m convinced that the pulse of this international consensus starts here. A gathering together in a quilt, not in a single unbroken piece of cloth, but in segments, we are here to seize the neuroscience moment,” Fattah said. “We are here, and we will always be here, because this is the work that will change the world.”

There is perhaps no better place for that “here” than Israel, Fattah told The Times of Israel. “I’ve seen with my own eyes what the effects of Israeli neuroscience research is. It was in my congressional district in Philadelphia that ReWalk, the Israeli company that makes the exoskeleton suit that enables paraplegics to walk, carried out their trials. I saw an IDF veteran who was in a wheelchair for 20 years get up and walk. That was an amazing thing to see.”

Fattah is the lead Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, responsible for overseeing federal expenditures in the science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

He is also chairman of the Fattah Neuroscience Initiative, a policy group that brings the disparate research being done in neuroscience among federal agencies under a single umbrella, and as such represented the US at Braintech, where researchers and officials from around the world got together to discuss the latest in brain research.

Among the speakers was Prof. Henry Markram, director of the EU Human Brain Project, who said that the conference was “exciting” because it shows that “the industry is not going to wait for academia. It’s going to drag it. There is no Einstein of the brain. It requires us getting around the same table. We have been able to take the brain initiative from over the horizon and put it on the horizon and put a bull’s-eye on it.”

The conference was chaired by Dr. Rafi Gidron, head of Israel Brain Technologies, a privately and publicly funded nonprofit initiative that, like Fattah’s Neuroscience Initiative, seeks to bring together researchers from Israel and abroad to improve brain science.

“Brain-related illness such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, brain trauma and others know no borders, and neither can their cures,” said Gidron. “By the same token, creativity, invention, innovation and imagination also know no borders and therefore, initiatives seeking the next big thing in brain technology should by definition be global endeavors.”

Also speaking at the conference was Israel’s own inimitable Shimon Peres, who during his tenure as president of Israel initiated BrainTech in 2013. He told the 500-plus attendees of the conference about the progress that has been made among Israeli researchers since the previous event.

“We have in Israel right now over a hundred companies that are dealing with the brain, we have brain faculties in every university,” said Peres. “This is only the beginning. We are a start-up in the brain.”

That’s what Fattah is counting on. “The most important factor in neuroscience progress is going to be international cooperation, because as Professor Markram pointed out, we have no Einsteins in this area, at least not yet,” he said. “The US, Europe, Japan, China, and many others are contributing to this. That, president Peres told me, is part of his vision as well. But there’s no denying the great contributions Israel has made in neuroscience, which is why I am here – and plan to keep coming back until some of these big questions and problems are solved.”

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