It is no exaggeration to say that the human brain is an impressive organ. No other brain in the animal kingdom is capable of generating the kind of higher consciousness associated with human ingenuity, with our ability to make plans and write poetry. Yet the most complex structure in the known universe – as it is often described – is more mysterious than the least- explored regions of the deepest ocean.
All that is about to change. President Obama has already made it clear that he sees the brain as the Apollo mission of his time and he has doubled federal funding for the initial stages of his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative to $200m.
Although still relatively small by US government standards, the initiative aims to accelerate the development and use of innovative technologies that could radically change our understanding of the human brain. The practical benefits could be immense, given the few effective treatments for the many crippling disorders of the brain, from childhood autism to senile dementias.
Until recently, studies of the brain relied either on looking at gross changes resulting from head injuries, say, or brain tumours, or on charting oxygen and glucose consumption in the brains of the healthy. But these kinds of approaches have had only limited success in exploring the mysterious landscape of the brain. Now, however, new techniques are producing great excitement among neuroscientists. One such – as we report today – is the product of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a Seattle-based research laboratory funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, which has put together an “atlas” of the developing human brain based on the activity of different genes as they are switched on and off in the womb – a so-called “transcriptome”. Meanwhile, advances in computer science, mathematical analysis, and the images that come with modern visualisation of data, are also transforming the way we can study the living brain. For the first time we can listen to the whole symphony, rather than just individual instruments of the brain’s orchestra.
The task ahead is immense, though. We each have something approaching 100 billion nerve cells – neurons – in the human brain (more than the number of stars in the Milky Way). Each of them can be connected directly with maybe 10,000 others, totalling some 100 trillion nerve connections. If each neuron of a single human brain were laid end to end they could be wrapped around the Earth twice over. Deciphering the biological conundrum of this most complex of organs makes unravelling the genome, for example, look like child’s play.
Yet the scientific quest should be applauded and encouraged, whether the initiatives come from the public purse, thanks to the likes of Mr Obama, or private finance, courtesy of the likes of Mr Allen. The brain and its mysteries are simply too important to be left unexplored – and there is something particularly poetic about its being done with computers generated by the brain’s ingenuity. The result will not only be much-needed treatments for development disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, it will also tell us something important about that great imponderable, the human mind.