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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Public concerns over a third Heathrow runway appear to be secondary to the needs of businesses  

Business people are the new trade unions - unelected but continually to be appeased in case they turn nasty

DJ Taylor
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'