Solving the Brain Puzzle

By: Kristina Madjoska

Each one contributes to a story, forms a unique context with the pieces around it, and finally emerges as part of a collection of stories that make up one human brain. Scientists from around the world have endeavored to make sense of the way these nanoscale puzzle pieces, or neurons, communicate with each other to produce all of our amazing and distinct identities. The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Project, initiated and funded by the Obama administration in 2013 in consortium with the Human Brain Project of the European Union, aims to support researchers in developing new technologies that would enable us to map the brain at the level of individual neurons (1). The BRAIN project would potentially help us understand the contribution of each neuron in the brain to the formation of human perception, emotion, memory, cognition and everything in between.

Given that an average neuron is about 50 microns (one micron is 0.1 mm) in size, and neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers with which neurons communicate – are a hundred times smaller than that, the BRAIN Project’s main goal is developing novel nanotechnologies tailored to the structure of the brain. Nanotechnology is the engineering and use of small, nanoscale materials with specific functional properties to study a certain system in detail. In the study of the brain, nanoparticles such as ultra-thin electrodes and small molecules are used to track the electrical activity of individual neurons, manipulate and follow the presence of neurotransmitters in specific neural synapses, and form detailed images of the brain during its performance of different functions (2). Unlike older technologies like electrodes and magnetic scans that measure the activity of whole brain areas, these new technologies can be manipulated to target specific cell types and allow researchers to precisely pinpoint what happens where and how it happens. The ultimate goal of this project is to create a functional, three-dimensional map of the brain, one which scientists and physicians can refer to when making diagnoses and predictions about brain abnormalities, neurodegenerative diseases and especially under-researched psychiatric illnesses (3). This model is similar to the one used for the Human Genome Project, in which a standardized sequence of human DNA was produced as a reference to help identify harmful genetic mutations. So far, ideas about how to reach this level of precision in tracking electrical activity in the brain range from quantum dots, which are tiny semi-conducting particles that exhibit light in response to voltage changes, to electrode caps with thousands of nanoscale electrodes.

However, the project is very impressive to have yielded any significant discoveries, and its challenges cannot be underestimated. The brain is composed of a hundred billion individual neurons, each of which can make up to ten thousand connections with other neurons, and the task of tracking each can undoubtedly be long and cumbersome. A more modest approach considered by scientists is to first try to map the brain of a mouse model organism which has 75 million neurons, a complicated yet comparatively much more feasible undertaking. What is more, unlike the Human Genome Project where scientists knew exactly that they were looking for a base pair sequence, the BRAIN project is much more open-ended and researchers have to be vigilant about encountering unexpected neuronal behavior.

Though complicated and certainly very ambitious, mapping the human brain in the smallest detail can be a landmark step towards decoding the enigmatic function of this center of human identity. In these vibrant times for neuroscience, the task of scientists is to build our brain puzzle by puzzle, helping us grasp the elegance and the intricacy with which it operates.

Kristina Madjoska ‘19 is a rising sophomore in Lowell House, concentrating in Neurobiology.

WORKS CITED

[1] “Mapping the Mind with Nanotechnology.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 29 May 2013. Web.

[2] Silva, Gabriel A. “Neuroscience Nanotechnology: Progress, Opportunities and Challenges.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience Nat Rev Neurosci 7.1 (2006): 65-74. Web.

[3] Marx, Vivien. “Neurobiology: Brain Mapping in High Resolution.” Nature 503.7474 (2013): 147-52. Web.

Categories: Spring 2016

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