This blog is the second in a series of guest posts on technology and the brain to celebrate Scientific American Mind’s 10-year anniversary. The magazine’s special November/December issue similarly highlights the interface between code and thought in profiling a future, more digital YOU.
All of our mental experience is born from the coordinated electrical activity of billions of neurons in our brain. Despite decades of progress, however, we still have a poor grasp of how patterns of electricity in the brain give rise to specific thoughts, memories or emotions.
One obstacle towards achieving such an understanding is actually manmade. Brain research in universities and scientific institutes around the world is highly decentralized. Small, individual laboratories work largely independently on questions that they deem to be the most important in their particular field of neuroscience. Though this distributed model has proved effective in chipping away at the unsolved mysteries of brain function, I believe that an integrated, centralized approach at a scale commensurate to the scientific challenge is ultimately needed. By analogy to a NASA observatory or CERN, a massive, publicly funded brain observatory can foster the interdisciplinary collaborations that will ultimately let us achieve the insights we need.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, for example, radically upgraded our understanding of the speed of the universe’s expansion and the prevalence of black holes, whereas CERN’s supercollider proved the existence of the Higgs Boson. What would a centralized effort for brain study look like and what might it find?
President Obama’s BRAIN initiative is an important step toward answering this question. This endeavor focuses on developing the groundbreaking technologies–primarily in brain imaging, electrical recording and optical tools for manipulating neural activity–that will be necessary for any future grand approach towards a full understanding of the human brain.
One of the first positive outcomes of this initiative–along with key encouragement from other agencies, such as The Optical Society–is that it has already spurred collaboration between scientists in complementary disciplines. No longer is it just us neuroscientists working with a few similarly trained postdoctoral fellows and PhD students. Instead, we’re forming teams and engaging chemists, physicists, engineers and mathematicians to develop the new approaches needed to probe the fundamental mysteries of the brain. These new technologies draw on such a diverse array of backgrounds–including optics, electrical engineering, computer science and genetic engineering–that cross-disciplinary collaborative teams are essential to our progress.
Because its goals are practical, the BRAIN initiative has a strong likelihood of success. The key question then becomes: What is the next step? We’ll need the new technologies made possible by the initiative to start building a NASA- or CERN-scale project to understand the brain. The ultimate goal would be to construct a device that could measure and manipulate the electrical activity of every neuron in the brain, simultaneously and in real time. At present we can image the neural activity in entire brains of worms, fruit flies and even larval zebrafish, but the mammalian brain is orders of magnitude larger and more complex, and, importantly, it is not transparent. We require large leaps in technology to observe a mammal’s brain in the same way.
I speculate that the initial focus of this large-scale initiative will begin with understanding the cerebral cortex of the laboratory mouse. Not only does the cerebral cortex perform key executive tasks affecting all regions of the brain, in the mouse it offers the advantage of being unusually thin–less than 1.5 mm at its thickest (and less than twice as thick in the human cortex) — and thus the part of the brain most amenable to large scale imaging and manipulation. Using the new observatory, we might, for instance, finally decipher the fundamental logic of neural code–the neural syntax–for the synthesis of sensory perceptions.
Just as building the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider has opened up completely new fields of research in astronomy and physics, creating a whole brain observatory would undoubtedly reveal major insights into brain function that we cannot even anticipate.
This video clip shows, at three times actual speed, active neurons in the cerebral cortex of an awake mouse.
Movie: Evan Lyall/Hillel Adesnik
Image: David Taylor/Hillel Adesnik
Next in the series: “Can Video Games Diagnose Cognitive Deficits?”