Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series about emerging neurotechnologies. Join a pilot class of 12 PhD students at MIT as we explore how neuroscience is revolutionizing our understanding of the brain. Each post coincides with a lecture and lab tour at MIT created by the Center for Neurobiological Engineering. This experiment is supported by MITx and created by EyeWire.
A beautiful scene stirs a sense of wonder. Reminiscing with a friend brings back warm memories. A conflict instantly spawns alertness — even if it’s only in a movie. Your capacity to feel joy or fight anger or savor a laugh is made possible by an exquisite organ: the brain. It enables universal human tendencies while rendering you one of over 7 billion unique individuals.
We’ve learned more about the brain in the past 5 years than the previous 5,000. A convergence of technologies allows us to see synapses at nanoscale resolution and map highways of millions of cells. Researchers can measure activity spanning milliseconds, minutes and decades. Techniques from MRI to microscopy allow us to engineer views of the cells that make us human.
A human brain consists of over 80 billion cells connected by a thousand trillion synapses. Neurons make networks, circuits of cells that communicate local synaptic activity to other parts of the brain. Circuits fire at different frequencies, synthesize and pass various molecules, and connect with specific other populations of cells. Seeing this system in entirety is a legendary endeavor. Its importance is evidenced by America’s BRAIN Initiative and the European Brain Project, recent additions to billions of dollars in international stimulus for neuroscience research. The neurotechnologies featured in this series will be among those that allow researchers to measure the brain’s structure and activity. Over the next 12 weeks, MIT and Scientific American will reveal how neurotech is revolutionizing our understanding of ourselves. We’ll journey into the terrain of thinking, feeling and perceiving through the technologies making it possible.
A Complex Ecosystem
The network map above visualizes media coverage of neurotech over the previous year (here's how it’s made). Each node represents a top news article. A line connecting two nodes represents a topical similarity between articles. Communities are color coded. Cross-community links show interdisciplinary research resulting in significant discoveries.
Despite a great variety of neurotechnologies used by labs around the world, we can see three major communities dominate the news. The pink cluster shows discoveries made possible by MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). A widely-shared and recently contested story presented fMRI brain scans of NFL players, revealing an increased likelihood of long term cognitive impairment due to repeated head impacts. Researchers at UC Berkeley are training computers to reconstruct images from brain scans, effectively reading a mind. A study published by the Human Connectome Project used DTI, a form of MRI, to detect abnormal brain wiring in people with epilepsy, which could help diagnose and treat a disease afflicting millions of people worldwide. Brain scans are even beginning to enable doctors to “predict the future working memory of children and adolescents by examining brain scans.” If we can predict it, can we change it?
The orange and dark green community in the top right shows optogenetics, “neuroscience’s new toolbox.” This technique allows researchers to genetically engineer neurons to fire electrical activity when light shines on them. It is often used in tandem with other technologies to recognize and manipulate brain regions responsible for behavior. This led one group at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to put an end to binge drinking behavior in alcoholic mice. Another team from Stanford activated a set of neurons and was able to reduce a mouse’s pain sensitivity. Still more researchers at MIT are discerning how the brain encodes emotional associations with memories, leading to surprising discoveries of the capability of the adult brain to rewire and modify itself.
The third dominant neurotech news community shown in green is Molecular and Cell Engineering. Researchers in this arena at Johns Hopkins recently discovered that a release of the neurotransmitter GABA helps new neurons stay alive, which could be helpful in reversing neuron death associated with certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Another team, also from Johns Hopkins, is deciphering protein interactions that inhibit normal biological function in patients with Parkinson’s.
Dominant news highlights few among many technologies making neuroscience waves. If you look closer, creative and cross-disciplinary articles emerge. In the world of Brain Computer Interfaces, Google Glass explorers can now pair EEG headsets and take a photo simply by thinking. Other creative technologists have hooked up UAVs to portable EEGs and can fly the skies with their minds.
The more we know about the brain, the better we are equipped to prevent dysfunctions and fix it when things go wrong. We're also poised to understand what makes brains thrive and potentially amplify our brains’ natural abilities. Nobel Laureate and MIT Neuroscience Professor Susumu Tonegawa muses that one day “one may be able to develop methods that help people to remember positive memories more strongly than negative ones.” Imagine a future where you don't lose sleep to worry; where your willpower could be strategically enhanced; where you could learn faster and more effectively share ideas with others. It may sound far out. Our pace of innovation regularly outpaces current inventiveness. It was, after all, only 66 years after man’s first flight that we set foot on the moon. The human brain has its way of turning science fiction dreams into reality.
See an overview of the MIT Neurotech at neurotech.eyewire.org.
Tune in next Thursday when we’ll explore how multiphoton microscopy allows us to image live neurons at synaptic resolution.