We do not understand the brain. Each of us has approaching 100 billion nerve cells up there – well, a few of us have probably lost some along the way – and each of those cells can be connected directly with 10,000 others. In the words of i’s Science Editor Steve Connor (highly commended at Tuesday’s British Press Awards) “deciphering the biological conundrum of this most complex of organs makes unravelling the genome look like child’s play”.
The US President Barack Obama and our own David Cameron see brain research as the Apollo mission of their age, increasing state funding for revolutionary new study techniques in the hope that our generations may uncover mysteries of the human mind and begin to understand schizophrenia, autism and dementia.
The development we report on today was funded by a private benefactor, the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. For the first time, scientists have generated detailed images of the infant brain growing in the womb. This is incredibly exciting for them, 1) because it could be a decisive breakthrough in understanding cognitive disorders triggered before birth, and 2) because they hope it will one day lead to a “blueprint for building the human brain”. Their report, analysis and colourful research is to be found here.
Despite the pioneering new techniques, science still needs more brains. A critical part of research is replication, repeating an experiment in order to check the results. Diseases of the brain are increasingly common in the UK – look at the masses blighted by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – and there are no known cures for many of these diseases. If you would like to know more about donating your brain to science, the Human Tissue Authority has a page explaining more here: tinyurl.com/654qaj2.