Feature Patrick Granfield, The National's Frontiers editor, dissects the fascinating field of brain sciences.
This will be the year of the brain. As scientists delve further than ever before in to the mysteries of how we learn, remember and act, their results could yield nothing less than the nature of the human self. Patrick Granfield, The National's Frontiers editor, dissects the fascinating field.
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?" As 2009 presents us with more ways to organise, collect and expand the limits of human information and knowledge, it will be useful to keep TS Eliot's questions from The Rock in mind, or at least on your Blackberry. Since scientists discovered how to place exponentially greater amounts of data on ever-smaller silicon chips, the world is gaining access to near-endless sources of information. And now, it appears that we are are on the cusp of another information revolution: unlocking the brain. More so than any other year in human history, this year will be the year of the brain (and not simply because it marks George Bush's exit from the White House).
Brain sciences will leap forward this year because, relative to other scientific disciplines, there is so much left to learn about the cerebrum. Researchers are already making progress in their efforts to understand the hundred-billion odd neurons in our heads and the electrical synapses between them. From the foundations of human altruism to why we appear to have an innate spirituality to differences between the sexes, scientists are cajoling the brain to give up its secrets little by little, and the ramifications go far beyond neuroscience. Admittedly, it's a big task "to understand the biological basis of consciousness and the mental processes by which we perceive, act, learn and remember", which is the mission of the brain sciences, according to Dr Eric Kandel, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University who won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his research into how the brain's neurons store information.
The size of the areas scientists are exploring belies the grandiosity of the task. Take, for instance, the cognitive brain project. This year, prominent scientists from the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, Stanford and Columbia are attempting to recreate the brain function of a small mammal using super-computers. Such computers can store massive amounts of information and analyse reams of it in milliseconds, yet they have trouble learning.
The scientists have been given millions of dollars to create an electrical system the size of a mouse's brain. Using the same power needed for a low-watt light bulb, the system, if successful, will be capable of recalling its past electrical firings and determine whether they were for its benefit or detriment. Researchers are also working on how to repair the brain. From severe depression to Parkinson's disease, brain illnesses are largely a result of faulty wiring. However, since the brain is a fine and delicate instrument, it has been inconceivable to replace its circuitry, as is done with the heart. In a study published last month in Nature Nanotechnology, researchers reported that they had developed carbon nanotubes that were extremely small and conducive to electrical stimuli, similar to the brain's neurons. The study suggested that this research could be used to create an "electrical bypass" for victims of brain injuries.
Before scientists attempted to simulate how the human brain learns and remembers, they observed how the brain itself accomplishes this, which has been made possible by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a process that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to show in three dimensions where there is increased oxygen, blood flow and chemical reactions. Last year, researchers discovered that by studying the patterns of brain activity in these scans, they could predict how the study's subjects would choose if given two options. In a recent study, Dr Yalin Yang at the University of Southern California and Adrian Raine, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, used brain scans to discover that congenital liars, who are genetically wired to fib, had more than 22 per cent grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of their brain.
These scans don't read minds, and they risk appearing like phrenology, but fMRI has changed the study of neuroscience and will continue to work its magic through this year. Until now, studies of brain imaging have focused on specific funtions or regions of the brain. The greater question is: how do these functions integrate within the mind? This integration has led some scientists to ask disconcerting questions about the nature of the human self. As Dr Michael Gazzaniga, one of the foremost brain scientists, explained in his book The Ethical Brain: "Even though our brain carries all these functions, we do not feel like a million little robots carrying out their disjointed activities. We feel like one, coherent self with intentions and reasons for what we feel are our unified actions. How can this be?"
Dr Gazzaniga believes that he has discovered a few regions of the brain that take the tens of thousands of discrete electrical impulses and interprets them, making sense and building a narrative out of the sensory cacophony that we are exposed to at every moment. Of course, all these researchers are relying on their own human brains for answers. So as they advance human understanding in 2009, they might be wise to remember what the author Tom Robbins once wrote: "Our brains permit us to use such a wee fraction of their resources that, in a sense, everything we experience is a reduction."