2013: Big bets on the brain

Expect rapid advances as science learns to control—and be controlled by—the organ that does not accept stasis
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First Published: Thu, Dec 27 2012. 06 33 PM IST
The biggest advances in neuroscience came in only the 1990s. As 2013 rolls in, prepare to change and be changed. Photo: iStockphoto
The biggest advances in neuroscience came in only the 1990s. As 2013 rolls in, prepare to change and be changed. Photo: iStockphoto
Change does not roll in on wheels of inevitability, said the great American civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr. King’s inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi, said we must be the change we want to see. The man who never agreed with Gandhi, Winston Churchill, concurred: To improve is to change, Churchill said, to be perfect is to change often.
Humans are defined by their ability to change things. They change their environment, themselves and the course of history. This is because at the core of their being is an organ that does not accept stasis.
The human brain is changing all the time, learning, adapting, reprogramming and rewiring itself. When it experiences something new, it changes. Indeed, reading this article is changing your brain, which means, of course, that we can guide or shape these changes.
If you asked me which scientific frontier excited me the most this year, I would say brain research, specifically the brain-machine interface and neural engineering. These areas are likely to see great advances next year—converting, as it were, science fiction into fact sooner than we imagine.
My year began at the University of Berkeley, California, where Brian Pasley and Jack Gallant offered me varied journeys into the human brain. Pasley, a post-doctoral researcher at the neuroscience programme, was part of a team that decoded brain waves and replayed them as—somewhat slurry—words. Gallant, a neuroscience professor, headed a team that used computers to record neural activity and playback—hazy and grainy—movie clips that volunteers had previously seen.
These are small but significant advances in the great search to unlock the secrets of memory and consciousness, critical elements in understanding how to rewire the brain and guide its neural networks towards new frontiers: coaxing speech from a paralysed person; accessing the mind of a patient in coma; building artificial limbs that respond directly to the brain’s commands; growing neurons artificially and connecting them to the body’s natural, neural pathways.
The convergence of advances in a variety of fields—from engineering to neuroscience—is helping us tinker with the brain. For instance, consider the two challenges in creating a prosthetic directly controlled by the brain. One, human nerves and electronic wires use radically different modes of communication. Two, the body’s immune response to foreign objects, such as wires and other electronics, scars and impairs tissue needed to keep prosthetics in good order.
“Advances in nanotechnology and tissue engineering...are addressing both challenges,” write D. Kacy Cullen and Douglas H. Smith of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair in the January 2013 issue of the Scientific American. “Rather than trying to force nerves to communicate directly with the standard electronics in modern prostheses, we and others are building new kinds of bridges between nerves and artificial limbs—linkages that take advantage of the nervous system system’s inborn ability to adapt itself to new situations.”
Today’s techniques are cumbersome, but advances will come hard and fast, as they always have in science. For instance, it is generally known that Alexander Graham Bell made the world’s first telephone call in 1876. What isn’t as well known is that he demonstrated the first wireless telephone message only four years later. So, Pasley’s and his colleagues implanted electrodes in the brain, while Gallant’s subjects lay prone for up to three hours in an MRI machine that recorded their neural activity. But as computing power and other techniques develop, it should not be long—perhaps in this decade—before “thinking caps” record and replay what you see and think.
“Once we know what the brain is telling us through patterns of brain activity, we can work backwards and start to get at the fundamental language of the brain—how simple digital outputs from massive populations of neurons code for complex sensations, emotions, thoughts and actions,” Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist who runs the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California-Davis, told me earlier this year.
These patterns have clinical implications, of the kind I referred to earlier—developing prosthetic implants and brain-computer interfaces for people with motor, sensory or cognitive problems.
As always, there are dark sides to these advances. Could discerning patterns from brainwaves lead to the involuntary extraction of information by security agencies and terrorists? The short answer is yes. Brain development has led humans to greater conflict and simultaneously pushed them to new achievements, one often leading to the other. As Cullen and Smith note, “much of the progress in prosthetic design has occurred as a result of armed conflict—most recently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Elements of the sciences that probe the brain are not new. Social cognitive theory, which explains how people change by watching others, dates to the 1940s. But the biggest advances in neuroscience came in only the 1990s. As 2013 rolls in, prepare to change and be changed.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalorebased journalist. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com. To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/frontiermail
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First Published: Thu, Dec 27 2012. 06 33 PM IST