Colin Blakemore: An organ so complex we may never fully understand it

Share
Related Topics

You don't have to be a neuroscientist to realise that this is an exciting time to be studying the brain.

Yet the brain remains one of the greatest areas of ignorance in contemporary science. The scale of the problem is immense. There are 100,000 million nerve cells or more in the human brain, with 10,000 times as many connections between them. That means that, on average, the brain makes a million connections every second for the whole of our lifetime.

Many of those connections are laid down before birth, guided by a blueprint contained in our genes. Half or more of all the genes in human chromosomes are switched on in brain cells, at one stage or another in life. But that's still only 12,000 or so genes.

One of the challenges to neuroscience is to understand how such a modest set of instructions can build a brain. We can now pinpoint where and when genes are turned on, and can modify genes in laboratory mice to define what they do. Genes don't only construct the brain. They run the internal machinery that keeps nerve cells functioning throughout life.

Just as in every area of medical science, the unravelling of the human genome is paying off in knowledge about genetic problems responsible for so many brain diseases.

And with that comes the possibility of developing treatments to correct the chemical deficiencies that underpin disease.

But the genetic revolution has also revealed the extent to which the organisation of the brain transcends the information contained in our genes. Your genes couldn't possibly know about bicycles or foreign languages or mobile phones, yet your brain deals with each of these challenges. One of the most significant changes of scientific attitude in my lifetime has been recognition that the brain is constantly adapting – modifying itself in response to the information flowing through it – remembering and learning.

Computers are also learning devices, with pre-programmed hardware and specialised software. The science of artificial intelligence promised not only to create computer systems that could rival human intelligence but also to provide better understanding of how our brains work. Fifty years on, the latter of these objectives remains unfulfilled but many still have faith in the computer analogy.

The brain poses huge challenges to science. But we simply have to solve them. The majority of presently incurable diseases affect the nervous system. Paradoxically, the spectacular success of medical science in prolonging the function of the rest of the body is amplifying the burden of brain disease.

The author is professor of neuroscience at the universities of Oxford and Warwick

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone