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3 future visions of human inspired by neuroscience’s past & present

Science desk || shiningbd

Published: 14:25, 4 March 2021   Update: 14:58, 4 March 2021
3 future visions of human inspired by neuroscience’s past & present

A century ago, science’s understanding of the brain was primitive, like astronomy before telescopes. Certain brain injuries were known to cause specific problems, like loss of speech or vision, but those findings offered a fuzzy view.

A century ago, science’s understanding of the brain was primitive, like astronomy before telescopes. Certain brain injuries were known to cause specific problems, like loss of speech or vision, but those findings offered a fuzzy view.

Anatomists had identified nerve cells, or neurons, as key components of the brain and nervous system. But nobody knew how these cells collectively manage the brain’s sophisticated control of behavior, memory, or emotions. And nobody knew how neurons communicate, or the intricacies of their connections. For that matter, the research field is known as neuroscience — the science of the nervous system — did not exist, becoming known as such only in the 1960s.

Over the last 100 years, brain scientists have built their telescopes. Powerful tools for peering inward have revealed cellular constellations. It’s likely that over 100 different kinds of brain cells communicate with dozens of distinct chemicals. A single neuron, scientists have discovered, can connect to tens of thousands of other cells.

Yet neuroscience, though no longer in its infancy, is far from mature.

Today, making sense of the brain’s vexing complexity is harder than ever. Advanced technologies and expanded computing capacity churn out torrents of information. “We have vastly more data … than we ever had before, period,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute in Seattle. Yet we still don’t have a satisfying explanation of how the brain operates. We may never understand brains in the way we understand rainbows, or black holes, or DNA.

This article is an excerpt from a series celebrating some of the biggest advances in science over the last century. For an expanded version of the past, present, and future of neuroscience, visit Century of Science: Our brains, our futures.

Deeper revelations may come from studying the vast arrays of neural connections that move information from one part of the brain to another. Using the latest brain mapping technologies, scientists have begun drawing detailed maps of those neural highways, compiling a comprehensive atlas of the brain’s communication systems, known as the connectome.

Those maps are providing a more realistic picture than early work that emphasized the roles of certain brain areas over the connections among them, says Michael D. Fox, a neuroscientist who directs the Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Scientists now know that the dot on the map is less important than the roads leading in and out.

“With the building of the human connectome, this wiring diagram of the human brain, we all of a sudden had the resources and the tools to begin to look at [the brain] differently,” Fox says.

Scientists are already starting to use these new brain maps to treat disorders. That’s the main goal of Fox’s center, dedicated to changing brain circuits in ways that alleviate disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. “Maybe for the first time in history, we’ve got the tools to map these symptoms onto human brain circuits, and we’ve got the tools to intervene and modulate these circuits,” Fox says.

The goal sounds grandiose, but Fox doesn’t think it’s a stretch. “My deadline is a decade from now,” he says.

Whether it’s 10 years from now or 50, by imagining what’s ahead, we can remind ourselves of the progress that’s already been made, of the neural galaxies that have been discovered and mapped. And we can allow ourselves a moment of wonder at what might come next.

The three fictional vignettes that follow illustrate some of those future possibilities. No doubt they will be wrong in the details, but each is rooted in research that’s underway today, as described in the “reality checks” that follow each imagined scenario.

ShiningBD/MB