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Scientific American MIND reflects on the major discoveries of the past decade that have transformed how we think about the brain
Scientist and author Lyall Watson once remarked: “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” The chaotic networks of billions of electrically pulsating neurons in our skulls have perplexed scientists for centuries. Yet in the last 10 years our understanding of this mysterious organ has exploded. Prodigious advances in diagnostic and molecular techniques have laid bare some of the brain’s complexity, and scientists are just beginning to parse how these revelations translate into everyday behavior, let alone disease. “I feel really sorry for the people who retired five years ago,” says Michael Stryker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “Neuroscience now is a completely different world from how it used to be.” In celebration of its 10-year anniversary, Scientific American Mind looks back at 10 significant branches of brain research and the meaningful contributions each has made.
[Here are the first three of ten.]
To diagnose neurological disorders merely two decades ago, doctors performed costly or intrusive procedures such as brain scans, spinal taps and biopsies. Parents of children with hereditary diseases often worried whether they would pass the same genetic abnormality onto their next child. Today, many such evaluations—including those of select degenerative disorders, epilepsies and movement disorders—can be performed with a quick and simple blood test. These assessments were made possible by the Human Genome Project (HGP), which sequenced and mapped our genes in 2001. In its wake a flood of new sequencing technologies allowed scientists to boost our understanding of the genetic pathways that spawn neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Other research has not yet yielded diagnostic tests but is nonetheless turning up much-needed insight into several challenging conditions. Scientists have homed in on bits of genetic material that swirl in the blood of patients with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and autism, among other disorders. The quick identification of clusters of disease-related genes will likely transform the way we identify and treat brain disorders in the future.
Philanthropist Paul Allen gathered experts in the early 2000s with the lofty goal of understanding how the human brain works. On the heels of the completed HGP they formed the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003. The Seattle-based organization began mapping regions of gene activity in the mouse brain and pooling results into online databases, or atlases, which now also include data on human and nonhuman primates. Free, comprehensive maps of genetic activity help researchers engineer mice that express specific cell types or discover genes relevant to certain diseases or behaviors. Today the institute continues to build atlases and it recently launched a 10-year plan to examine not only where specific genes are active but how these genetic circuits process the vast flow of information into the brain. As a major participant in the White House BRAIN Initiative announced by Pres. Barack Obama, the National Institutes of Health just granted the project $8.7 million to plot the trillions of neural connections in mouse and human brains. The ultimate goal is to revamp the way we approach brain diseases and disorders.
The Malleable Brain
Scientists long viewed the adult brain as a relatively static organ, Stryker says. As recently as 15 years ago, they believed that the brain was highly malleable in infancy and early childhood but resistant to change thereafter. Although the brain is most pliable early in life, “what’s really new this decade is the widespread appreciation, realization and exploitation of adult plasticity,” Stryker says. Brain training software developed by companies such as Lumosity and popular games such as Nintendo’s Big Brain Academy Wii Degree have penetrated popular culture. Oprah magazine now gives tips on how to “improve” your brain and make it “smarter.” R. Douglas Fields, a senior investigator at the NIH, credits the emergence of better imaging techniques and new ways to label cells to make them fluorescent, which have made it possible to observe the brain as it learns new information. “The ability to see brain cells operate alive inside the brain of an experimental animal is what has revealed the mechanisms of plasticity.”
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Judy Calderone is Senior Editor, Parenting at The New York Times. Here is a link to a selection of her other articles.