Understanding the human brain

Understanding The Human Brain

Will we ever get our minds around the brain? We know what it’s made of (77% water, for a start) and how much it weighs (about 3 pounds, generally). We also know that it has somewhere in excess of 80 billion neurons, each one connected chemically and electrically with 10, 000 others, creating the world’s most complex network, with more interconnections (1, 000 trillion synapses, give or take) than there are stars and planets in the Milky Way.

But how, exactly, does it all work? How does the brain cause our hearts to beat, or make us happy, breathe without thinking, fall in love, fear spiders, see, dream, learn, remember, taste, feel or smell?

And, perhaps most crucially, where in among all that neural spaghetti can we find our mind – our individual consciousness and sense of self?

These are some of the big questions that philosophers and scientists have been grappling with ever since René Descartes proposed that mind and matter were not the same thing, and that human activity was the product of a dualism in which the mind – aka “the soul”, in the 17th century – controlled the body.

Since then, answers have been few, incomplete and far between. But at this year’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China, the spotlight will be shone on global developments in neuroscience. This highlights the fact that we may finally be on the cusp of what many believe is a revolution in our understanding of how our brains – and our minds – work.

The mission to understand the brain has suddenly taken centre stage globally on a scale reminiscent of the vast collaborative effort that in 1969 made it possible to land a man on the Moon. The final frontier, it turns out, is to be found in our own little understood internal space.

A year ago, scientists from more than 130 institutions began collaborating on the 10-year Human Brain Project. Funded by the European Union, its aim has been to develop new computer technology to distill all human knowledge about the brain into a full-scale computer model, in the hope that this unified picture of the brain will lead to a greater understanding of brain diseases.

Understanding Alzheimer’s
This is important work, socially and economically. As medicine improves and lifespans lengthen, age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s are putting an increasingly intolerable strain on communities and their resources.

In the United States, meanwhile, the government has pledged $100 million for the first year alone of its BRAIN initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. This vastly ambitious project, launched by President Obama, aims to “give scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain and better understand how we think, learn and remember”.

So why now? And how come our understanding of the brain and the mind has lagged so woefully far behind our grasp of how all our other components function?

“We know much less about how the brain works than we do about the heart, liver or kidneys, ” says Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist who heads the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States, and who will be at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in September.

Why? The complexity of the brain dwarfs that of all our other parts “and we have not had the tools we have needed to be able to study the brain in the kind of detail that we’d like”, points out Insel.

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