In addition to such extremes as outer space and the bottom of the sea,
recent exploration has also concentrated on discoveries in yet another
mysterious direction--mapping the internal terra incognita of our human
When I was in junior high, we had a young principal who called me into his
office and started scribbling on a notepad as he talked about genes. He
was telling me about dominant genes and what happened when a
dark-haired man married a light-haired woman, or a blue-eyed man
married a brown-eyed woman. All the time, he was drawing diagrams of
the man, the woman and their potential children.
Somehow I knew he had just learned all that in college and was sharing his
new-found knowledge with me. People did that in Happy, Texas. They
invented ways to challenge those of us who tended to catch the regular
lessons the first time around. I suspect it had something to do with trying to
keep us out of trouble.
Bonnie Leitch, a girlfriend from Happy from second grade through high
school graduation, surprised me by coming to our 50th wedding
anniversary last month. As we reminisced about our school days, she
recalled that Miss Bennie Purnell, our math and science teacher, filled the
front row with students who especially needed her help and placed Bonnie
further back with books and work to do on her own. Miss Purnell would
look up from time to time to see if Bonnie had a question.
I didn't get that kind of treatment from Miss Purnell, because I was never as
good at math as Bonnie was. But I did get extra books to read, poetry to
memorize and essays to write in Mrs. Moudy's English class. I also
assisted her in the library, worked in the school office, edited the yearbook
my senior year and competed in debate and ready writing in Interscholastic
In 1962, a few years after my impromptu genetics lesson, Francis Crick
and James Watson shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for
their discovery of DNA.
In 1988 Congress funded the National Institutes of Health and the
Department of Energy to "coordinate research and technical activities
related to the human genome." The next year, Watson was tapped to lead
the NIH component, which the following year became the National Center
for Human Genome Research.
The actual mapping of the human genome began in June, 2000 and was
completed in 2003. It allows our genetic blueprints to be unraveled and
defective genes to be identified and treated.
This year, a project began to map that most mysterious of internal
landscapes, the human brain. Mapping the connections of the human brain
continues with increased urgency as our population ages. It holds promise
for the treatment of neurodegenerative illnesses like Altzheimers and other
forms of dimentia.
This summer, when I taught a class on "Growing Old with God" at the
Culver Palms Church of Christ, I asked what I called "technical experts" to
speak on various aspects of aging. These were people--ranging from a
personal trainer to a lawyer to a hospice counselor--who worked in fields
related to the lesson themes.
Dwayne Simmons of UCLA's Brain Research Institute is a part of the
Culver Palms family, and he encouraged us with recent findings on
preserving brain function.
Dwayne says video games are wasted on the young and would better serve
the elderly. As a result, my son Robert is sharing a new video game with
me. It's produced by the Japanese animators, Studio Ghibli and has the
most remarkable visuals.
Dwayne also says that new synapses do form in older brains--very
encouraging news. I'm excited about my "brain workouts" and the
prospects for an enhanced old age through the discoveries of brain research.