Many believe that we are now in the golden age of neuroscience. We are creating brain maps, significantly advancing technology and creating AI to understand this organ better than ever before!
We’re in the golden age of neuroscience, or so everyone says, from Barack Obama to Michio Kaku. Humans have explored moons, stars and galaxies with ever-increasing technology, but now we’re starting to look within. The human brain, as small as it is compared to the rest of our body, controls every aspect of our functioning. Yet, how the brain is responsible for everything from my fingers typing this article to the frustration I feel when I can’t find the right words still largely remains a mystery.
In the past, scientists used simpler organisms to explore the nervous system and extrapolate some of those findings to our species. However, even unravelling the most basic brain questions took 100 years. The human brain turned out to be far more complex than anyone had anticipated. We were beginning to comprehend our genetics and how we evolved from chimps, but a question mark still hung over the brain. Fortunately, the 21st century has moved us closer to answering that question.
Answering the question
The Human Genome Project gave humans a map of our own DNA—an entire library of ATGCs lined up for anyone to see and use. After achieving this feat, scientists at the National Institute of Health decided it was time to move on to another biological challenge in cartography–mapping the brain. So, in 2009, they announced the Human Connectome Project – a massive 5-year effort aimed at determining how every single neuron connects to the others.
It has been 10 years since the HCP was announced and the scientific community remains in a frenzy trying to “unlock” the brain. The HCP has extended its lifespan and birthed a great deal more neuroscience research. In 2013, Obama’s government announced the BRAIN initiative under the NIH to continue studying the brain, and the EU started its own brain project. Even private companies are jumping onto the brainy bandwagon. Elon Musk’s Neuralink, Facebook and Kernal, just to name a few, are out to make their cognitive sci-fi dreams a reality (along with making big bucks).
Decoding the brain
It’s much easier to talk about mind-controlled TVs than learning how to do it. Despite our tech looking more futuristic by the day, there is still quite a way to go. The struggle lies in unwrapping all the seemingly endless layers of complexity in the brain.
The brain looks like the organized chaos of neurons, and this is true, as there are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. These neurons are like wires that connect to each other, passing along information. The number of these connections is estimated at 100 trillion. Trying to visualize these numbers, especially in our squishy 3-pound brain is very difficult. Neurons can be classified into types and subtypes, with each part of the brain using a different type of neuron. Purkinje fibers, dendritic spines, pyramidal cells and chandelier cells only scratch the surface of this incredible variety. For those interested in the deep nuances, NeuroMorpho.org will give you images of individual cell types and the brain region they can be found. Aside from all that, there are also other, non-neuronal cells, aka glial cells, such as astrocytes, microglia, Schwann cells, oligodendrocytes, satellite cells, and ependymal cells, all of which affect how a neuron functions. The brain’s connections are anything but static, and are influenced by age, environment and the set of genes you receive. This makes every individual’s brain a new and distinct territory to explore and discover.
Just reading this is enough to make most people dizzy. Along with this, there is the challenge of observing all this in humans without a scalpel. Probing a healthy and functioning brain without opening up the skull is another part of this research challenge. Technologies like fMRIs, CT, PET scans and others emerged on the scene 50 years ago, but improvements are constantly being made so that images of the brain can be more clear and accurate. Using more sensitive electrodes, novel neuron staining methods, and advanced computer software, scientists are beginning to create these maps.
Following the map
On the agenda of every brain-related initiative is disease. Finding the cause and cure of various debilitating neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and bipolar disorder, among many others, is of the utmost importance. Understanding these diseases has proven to be a challenge, and new findings often result in more questions. The hope is that if we know how every single minute part of the brain works, we’ll be able to figure out how to cure these diseases.
Finding cures for diseases is more palatable than some of the other directions neuroscience is taking. Aspirations to achieve the next tech breakthrough are all based on overcoming the brain. Neurotechnology and neurocapitalism are both words that have become part of our zeitgeist in the past decade. Companies in these fields have a broader agenda than simply answering fundamental questions about the brain. Elon Musk has stated that one of Neuralink’s goals is to achieve symbiosis with AI, a sentiment that runs throughout the neurotechnology industry.
Decoding how human emotions work is the key to optimizing our human experience, according to some people’s opinions. Companies like Neurable are working towards neuroanalytics, as a means of understanding consumer behavior through a deeper understanding of the brain. Neuralink has designed ‘threads’ that insert into the brain, making brain-controlled movements a possibility.
If you’re thinking that all of this sounds too good to be true, you’d be right. All these technologies, despite what their creators claim, are extremely primitive. Our understanding of the complex network of systems in the brain thought to control emotion is still extremely rudimentary. We’re still discovering new cell types and just beginning to understand the interplay of genes and proteins that shape these networks. However, at the rate that research is progressing, it wouldn’t be surprising if, in the next few years, the news will be flooded with findings from uncharted cognitive territories!