WOONSOCKET, R.I. —
Patrick Kennedy retired from Congress in January, but on a recent evening in a veteran’s hall here, he sounded like he was still running for office as he spoke about the plight of troops traumatized by war.
“A lot of these veterans come home now and they’re prisoners of their war injuries,” he told a small group of veterans who nodded in assent. “That’s not the American way. We don’t leave our people behind.”
In a sense, the eight-term Rhode Island Democrat and 43-year-old son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy is still on the campaign trail, although not for any partisan cause. This month, he and a group of top neuroscientists launch an initiative called One Mind for Research to improve funding and unify research efforts in brain science.
He says it’s a quest that’s relevant to every American: military troops with rising suicide rates, children whose parents have Alzheimer’s disease, parents whose children have autism, anyone with a friend or family member suffering from epilepsy, depression, Parkinson’s disease or addiction.
May 25 is the 50th anniversary of the call made by his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, to send a man to the moon, and the group will commemorate that speech with a three-day invitation-only conference in Boston at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Massachusetts General Hospital. Vice President Joe Biden will deliver the keynote address.
The group, which also includes representatives from government, advocacy groups and the pharmaceutical industry, will release a 10-year plan for neuroscience to sketch out goals in areas from genetics to stem cells to connectomics – the science of mapping neural connections in the brain – and in making scientific data and research free and accessible.
Kennedy calls the brain the last medical frontier for discovery, and is calling for a new “moonshot to inner space” to spark the same spirit of idealism that captured the nation’s imagination as the call for lunar exploration did.
“Instead of us going to outer space, let’s go to inner space,” he told The Associated Press. “This is a fundamental moment for us as a nation to determine whether this is something that we’re up to the task of tackling.”
During his congressional tenure, Kennedy made mental health advocacy his signature cause, pushing through a bill that required insurance companies to treat mental health on an equal basis with physical illnesses.
He speaks about the issue in personal terms. His aunt, Rosemary Kennedy, was mentally disabled and spent most of her life in an institution. His uncle, Sargent Shriver, had Alzheimer’s. His father died in 2009 of brain cancer, an illness that “affected his whole being,” Kennedy says. He credits science with helping his father live an extra year, time he says was the best he ever spent with his father.
Kennedy himself has experienced very public struggles with addiction and depression. He has been in and out of rehab since high school, including several times while serving in Congress. Kennedy told the AP his life in Congress was “antithetical to good sobriety,” and that his recovery is going well.
He attributes that partly to being able to step out of the relentless spotlight that comes with being a Kennedy and establish a personal life. He is now engaged to 32-year-old middle school social studies teacher Amy Petitgout, and has moved to New Jersey to live with her and her 3-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Harper. They plan to marry in mid-July at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis, Mass., and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will officiate, he said.
He also starts a two-year visiting fellowship at Brown University’s Institute for Brain Science this summer.
But his life’s work is now the One Mind for Research campaign. Advancing our knowledge about how the brain works is fundamentally an issue of national security, he argues. He calls brain injuries the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether they are physical trauma or post-traumatic stress from living for months with the threat of IEDs and the chaos of war, and he says too many military members are suffering lifelong disabilities without effective treatments.
“The end result is a failure of massive proportion,” he said.
Campaign participants say the nation needs a renewed focus on neuroscience, especially now, when the tools and technologies have made huge leaps but effective treatments for many psychiatric and other disorders are still elusive. Federal funding for research has not kept up with the need, and pharmaceutical companies are moving away from neuroscience, said Jerrold Rosenbaum, chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Susan G. Amara, chair of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and president of the 41,000-member Society for Neuroscience, said many researchers are feeling stressed and demoralized about having insufficient money to fully explore questions about the brain. Kennedy’s passion and understanding of the issues will help bring scientists, government and the public on board, she said.
“He has this ability to make things much more personal and to really relate what it is and why it’s important to do these kinds of things,” she said.
Steven Hyman, the Harvard University’s provost and a neurobiologist who oversaw the development of the 10-year plan, said Kennedy has galvanized the scientific community.
The people affected are also taking notice. Joseph Nadeau, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War and commander of a Woonsocket VFW group, called Kennedy’s work an inspiration for people like him who work with veterans.
“He’s a hero to the families who receive these afflicted, traumatized individuals,” Nadeau said.
Kennedy acknowledges it may be impossible to try to change things as much as he’d like to, but says he’s heartened that everyone he asks to be involved has signed on.
“There’s no Republican or Democrat in terms of the urgency of the brain,” he said. “This investment in neuroscience will pay more dividends to our families and our countrymen than anything else we can make.”