Brain research is at a tipping point and life, work and play will never be the same again


Ancient Egyptians sucked it out of the noses of their dead. And then discarded it. Aristotle thought it was a radiator for cooling the blood. But by the end of the middle ages, the brain had won respect. No longer spurned as mere cranial stuffing, the brain was recognised as the seat of cognition… key to bodily function… a thing of intrigue… even beauty. In the 18th and 19th century, findings came thick and fast. Electricity’s role in nerve function was spotted by Luigi Galvani, inspiring in a roundabout way Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Louis Victor Leborgne helped show that different parts of the brain had different functions when he lost his ability to speak, but none of his other faculties, enabling Paul Broca to map brain areas that made speech possible. Santiago Ramon y Cajal showed that each spider-like brain cell was separate, not fused to its neighbour. That was key to understanding plasticity, and therefore the brain’s ability to learn, remember, and recover. Come the 20th century, another patient — Henry Molaison taught us about memory by losing his own on the operating table. The removal of parts of his brain to treat seizures left Molaison unable to remember new events, but still able to learn new physical skills. And allowed Brenda Milner to deduce that there are different types of memory located in different parts of the brain. Which, give or take a few decades, brings us to now… Today, we have brain imaging technologies capable of eavesdropping on the ebbs and flows of brain activity from second to second, over distances just the breadth of a few human hairs, without harming a single brain cell … There are techniques like optogenetics that use light to control living brain cells… and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation that can speak to the brain in its own special language, rousing cells to fire or to rest, to meld into fresh circuits or go their separate ways. And all this is coupled to insanely powerful computers capable of crunching the torrents of new brain data. International teams of scientists are jumping at the opportunity to use these tools to find out more about the brain. At the Human Connectome Project, they are mapping the brain’s connections and relating those “wiring diagrams” back to each person’s cognitive abilities, personality and genetics. At the European Union’s Human Brain Project, they are simulating the brain in a computer arguably the only way to understand such a complex beast. At the US BRAIN Initiative, they are developing novel neurotechnologies to explore how brain cells and circuits interact in time and space. And at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function, we are working out how the brain interacts with the world how it shifts attention to the things that matter, predicts what might happen next, and makes decisions — continuously, sub-consciously and at breakneck speed. Brain science is entering a new era that will transform the ways we learn, play, and work… even our very sense of what it means to be human. To share that journey of discovery, to contemplate its ethical and social issues, and to co-create this future together, the Centre for Integrative Brain Function runs The Brain Dialogue, a program of events, online discussions, citizen juries, and participatory science. Visit us at www.cibf.edu.au

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