Health

Published: Sunday June 8, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 10, 2014 MYT 4:37:47 PM

Understanding the brain

Advances in ICT over the last few decades has enabled us to better observe and analyse the brain. –Filepic

Advances in ICT over the last few decades has enabled us to better observe and analyse the brain. –Filepic

We take a look at the work being done on that crucial organ, which defines us as human beings.

The brain is the most complex part of the body. It controls almost all the body’s functions through the cranial nerves, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system.

The human brain is very complex and comprises billions of nerve cells (neurons), which communicate with other neurons through electrical and chemical activity.

The actual number of neurons is unknown.

Various estimates have been published in the scientific literature. However, there has been criticism of the methodology.

The brain defines us as human beings and distinguishes us from the other animals that have brains.

Knowledge about the brain and its functions has been very limited until the past three decades or so, when some of its secrets have been unlocked by research in the neurosciences with advances in technology.

New imaging and sequencing technologies, as well as new microscopy techniques, have contributed to a better ability to observe the brain.

There have been tremendous advances in information and communication technology (ICT) in the past two decades like the Internet and cloud technology.

These advances have made it possible to analyse data, identify knowledge gaps and build detailed brain models.

This article is intended to inform the reader of some aspects of activities on brain understanding.

Local brain research

It is not generally known that brain research is carried out in Malaysia.

The Brain Research Institute Monash Sunway (BRIMS) at the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Monash University Malaysia is internationally recognized for its research.

A team of eminent neuroscientists and state-of-the-art infrastructure has enabled BRIMS to provide cutting-edge research and quality training.

The research areas that BRIMS focuses on are reproductive ageing; depression, anxiety and epilepsy; addiction; sleep disorders; and neurodegeneration and neuroprotection.

The Reproductive Ageing group studies the neural and molecular mechanisms of reproductive ageing and its diseases, like sexual dysfunction, infertility and mental disorders, with the use of genomics.

The Depression, Anxiety and Epilepsy group focuses on understanding the causes of these conditions, which include biochemical, physiological, pharmacological, genetic, behavioural, environmental and social factors.

The Addiction group focuses on understanding the neuronal circuits that link negative emotion and addiction, where process and relapse are known to have a psychological basis.

The Sleep Disorder group focuses on the neuronal and molecular mechanisms to better understand how light disrupts human sleep cycles.

And the Neurodegeneration and Neuroprotection group focuses on the neuropharmacological mechanism of neurodegeneration, and aims to discover novel neuroprotective antioxidants for effective therapy of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The Human Brain Project

There is a gap between the biology of the brain and advances in computer technology.

This gap is being bridged by ICT, which permits the mining of enormous amount of clinical and imaging data to facilitate better understanding of brain diseases, which could lead to interventions that prevent and treat such diseases.

Brain simulation can also lead to new advances in ICT that have the potential to create computing systems with brain-like intelligence for applications in industries, economies and society.

The Europeans saw the need to apply ICT to brain research, making it available to scientists to develop research platforms that can be used for basic and clinical research, drug discovery, and technology development.

This led to the establishment of the Human Brain Project (HBP) last year, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and funded mainly by the European Union.

The HBP has “four goals, each building on existing work, and acting as a catalyst for new research:

1. Data: generate strategically selected data essential to seed brain atlases, build brain models and catalyse contributions from other groups.

2. Theory: identify mathematical principles underlying the relationships between different levels of brain organization and their role in the brain’s ability to acquire, represent and store information.

3. ICT platforms: provide an integrated system of ICT platforms providing services to neuroscientists, clinical researchers and technology developers that accelerate the pace of their research.

4. Applications: develop first draft models and prototype technologies demonstrating how the platforms can be used to produce results with immediate value for basic neuroscience, medicine and computing technology.”

Mind power

The 10th Festival of the Mind will be held on June 14-15 and 21-22 at the Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC) campus in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur, and the Tunku Abdul Rahman University (UTAR) campus in Kampar, Perak, respectively.

The objectives of the Festival are to imprint on the national consciousness, the importance of mental literacy; create awareness of the human mind and its unlimited potential, and ways of developing one’s brainpower; and introduce and promote various techniques and skills, such as memory skills, thinking skills, creativity, personality profiling, and enhancement of the brain to improve mental literacy.

The event is organised by the Malaysia Mental Literacy Movement (MMLM), in coope­ration with UTAR and TAR UC.

Programme details are available at www.facebook.com/malaysiamentalliteracymovement and www.utar.edu.my/mmlm.

Dr Milton Lum is the MLMM deputy chairman. This article is not intended to replace, dictate or define evaluation by a qualified doctor. The views expressed do not represent that of any organisation the writer is associated with. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my


Tags / Keywords: Health, The Doctor Says, brain, Human Brain Project

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