Will the human brain ever remain a mystery?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Many years ago the terms genes, genetics, genome were not familiar in common parlance and to most lay people. This is no longer the case. In fact it is not unusual nowadays to hear questions from lay persons about whether a particular disease or condition is hereditary or genetic, especially when it comes to cancer. This is because there is greater awareness about personal health and health matters in general among the population in most countries around the world, especially where people have access to information in various forms of the media and through the internet.

This is no doubt a good thing, but whether the knowledge they thereby acquire is made genuine use of to better their health is another matter. There are many other factors that influence people’s behavior and choices, and health personnel trying to do so have a hard time persuading patients they face — let alone people who feel that they are quite healthy and ‘normal’– to for example do some exercise, or eat with more prudence, or stop smoking and so on.

The point is that as science, technology and medicine — amongst others — advance, they come up with new terms and concepts that slowly creep into daily language. Although people may not understand fully the technicalities and deeper meanings behind these, still they have a fair idea about what is being talked about. Further, those who have the minimum background required may then decide to delve further into any topic of interest to them.

For example many years ago when I heard the terms email, internet, desktop, online I was totally confused and could not make out what was what! Not to speak of the ‘mother board’ – gosh what’s that!! Something mothers use to hit a child with? And what was ‘download’? But after some time, everything fell into place as it were, once I got a PC and was inducted gradually into how to operate and start interacting with it. Like many others today, without it I would feel orphaned, and suffice it that the internet is down for but a couple of hours at a crucial time that panic sets in! And then one graduates to laptop, minilaptop and now it’s tablets and probably after that it will be chocolates – another variant of tablet what!

Brain mapping

What the brain has got to do with all this is that a similar trend about it is likely to follow in years to come. In fact, just as the human genome project got off in 1990 to map all the billions of genes of the human being, there is an equivalent project for the brain that is likely to be launched by President Obama in the near future. The human genome project was completed in 2003, and the brain mapping project will likely last a couple of decades – for a start, because the brain is made up of even more billions, about 100, of specialized units called neurons.

Each neuron is sending out electrical signals practically all the time, and the signals are amplified when the neurons are activated. For example if our eyes are closed, the neurons concerned with vision will have low electrical activity, but if we open our eyes and look towards an object, then the neurons will receive the reflected light from the object, get ‘stimulated’, and immediately start ‘firing’, that is increase their electrical activity to link up with fellow neurons which will also start firing. All this adds up to ‘seeing’: in other words, we notice the object, and other parts of the brain then come into play to help us ‘recognise’ the object.

So this means that the neurons concerned with receiving the reflected light from the object have to connect with neurons elsewhere in the brain to allow a complete and proper appreciation of any object, what is known as ‘perception.’ Similarly with our four other senses in addition to vision: hearing, taste, smell, touch. The specific neurons related to the ears, the tongue, the nose and the skin also react in the same way by picking up the signal from outside – the nice aroma of hot coffee for example! – and the brain then ‘processes’ it by these neurons firing and connecting with other neurons of the brain. In this way we ‘perceive’ or make out what we are smelling, touching, hearing, seeing or tasting. Just figure out approximately how many objects one sees in a day, and how many other things one perceives with the four other senses. Got an idea of how much of work the brain does in one day?

But there is more: for the brain does not deal with only the senses. It also keeps ticking away to keep us alive while we are sleeping and will wake us up too, handles our passions and emotions, loves and fears and hates and sorrows and all other feelings, as well as letting us know whether we are sitting or standing or falling or dancing or…, and also remember the past and plan for the future: you can add to the list. And that also, the adding or subtracting from the list, is done by the brain. Think of anything you do – including thinking and dreaming – it is the brain that is at work. Not only at work, but actually in control.

So why do we need a brain? As a controlling and controlling centre for all our activities, physical and mental. But who decides on what to control and coordinate? Good question, isn’t it? Think about it.

If all this sounds complicated, it gets better as we take a look from another angle. There are about 1.3 million people in Mauritius. Imagine two people talking to each other at the same time, and think of each word as a signal. Now imagine a family of four getting ready to leave home in the morning, with parents and children talking to each other most of the time as they get ready. How many words — signals — does that add up to? Now imagine 1.3 million people sending such signals to and from each other at any given time: how many signals could one count?

Now we go to another level: the world with its 6 billion plus people – and here it gets more interesting as they speak different languages. Picture them doing the same thing, that is sending word ‘signals’ to each other across the globe at a given time. We can’t even begin to think of how many billions of signals that adds up to! Now multiple this at least 16 times – which gives us nearly 100 billion, that is, the number of neurons in the brain. 100 billion people talking to each other at the same time – pretty isn’t it?

That’s what the brain is continuously doing all the time during our lifetime, processing the signals from those 100 billions of neurons. But not only that: it also makes sense of them, and thus allows us to do perform our activities in a coherent manner, otherwise our daily lives would truly be a jumble!

Insights into consciousness

The brain mapping project can be said to, among other things, try ‘to make sense of how the brain makes sense’, and brain research as an important investment was referred to by President Obama in his recent State of the Union address. The New York Times wrote:

‘The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.

Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses.

Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.

The project, which could ultimately cost billions of dollars, is expected to be part of the president’s budget proposal next month. And, four scientists and representatives of research institutions said they had participated in planning for what is being called the Brain Activity Map project.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government should “invest in the best ideas.”

“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.” ’

Before the decade is out, there probably will be a whole set of new jargon that will have become commonplace, perhaps starting with ‘brainome’. Lucky are those who will be there to follow these exciting developments!

* Published in print edition on 22 February 2013

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