The human brain comprises nearly 100 billion cells called neurones that are linked to one another by neural pathways with an estimated 100 trillion connections.
It is the most complex organ in the body, controlling every bodily function.
Although all human brains have the same anatomy and functions, the precise pattern of connections and interactions vary with individuals, which is the source of the variation in human behaviour.
The brain makes us what we are and who we are, defining our individuality and common humanity.
The study of the brain and mind is the last frontier in medical science. There has been much progress in the last few decades. For example, the brain’s capacity to reorganise pathways, create new ones, and in some instances, even create new neurones, has replaced previous knowledge that the formation of new neurones cease shortly after birth.
However, there is much more that is unknown about brain function and thinking, than is known.
There have been ground-breaking scientific discoveries in the last two decades.
The human genome has been sequenced. There has been increasing resolution in imaging technologies. New tools for the mapping of neuronal connections have and are being developed. There’s phenomenal development in nanoscience, which is the study of structures and materials on the scale of nanometres – one billionth of a metre.
For example, a single strand of DNA, the building block of all living things, is about three nanometres wide, and computer hard drives, which store information on magnetic strips, are just 20 nanometres thick.
Of greater significance is the integration of studies and applications across different scientific fields. For example, the integration of physics and neuroscience has enabled the use of high-resolution imaging technologies to study the structural and functional aspects of the brain in living humans.
The combination of genetic and optical technologies has enabled the use of light pulses to study how specific cell activities in animal brains affect behaviour.
The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced by US President Barack Obama on April 2, 2013, to “accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought”.
The goals of the initiative are as follows:
1. Discovering diversity: Identify and provide experimental access to the different brain cell types to determine their roles in health and disease.
2. Maps at multiple scales: Generate circuit diagrams that vary in resolution from synapses to the whole brain.
3. The brain in action: Produce a dynamic picture of the functioning brain by developing and applying improved methods for large-scale monitoring of neural activity.
4. Demonstrating causality: Link brain activity to behaviour with precise interventional tools that change neural circuit dynamics.
5. Identifying fundamental principles: Produce conceptual foundations for understanding the biological basis of mental processes through development of new theoretical and data analysis tools.
6. Advancing human neuroscience: Develop innovative technologies to understand the human brain and treat its disorders; create and support integrated human brain research networks.
7. From BRAIN Initiative to the brain: Integrate new technological and conceptual approaches produced in Goals 1-6 to discover how dynamic patterns of neural activity are transformed into cognition, emotion, perception, and action in health and disease. (Source: Report to the Director of the US National Institutes of Health, 2014)
To achieve these goals, the BRAIN Initiative will be developing over a decade, commencing this year, with a primary focus on technology development in the initial five years, shifting in the later five years to a primary focus on integrating technologies to make fundamental new discoveries about the brain, with the distinction between the two phases not cast in stone.
The focus is not on technology itself, but on the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insights about how the nervous system functions in health and disease.
It is the aspiration of researchers that the Initiative will fill major gaps in current knowledge and provide opportunities for exploring how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilise, store and retrieve vast amounts of information, all at the speed of thought.
The Initiative will hopefully lead to new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, with potential benefits for millions of sufferers of nervous and mental diseases like autism, depression, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, etc.
There have been historical moments in science when an alignment of existing knowledge, discoveries, technological advances and visionary leadership created a great leap for mankind.
The space programme initiated by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 transformed daily life with its technological advances. The Human Genome Project initiated by the US National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy transformed biomedical research. The BRAIN Initiative will hopefully do the same.
Dr Milton Lum is deputy chairman of the Malaysia Mental Literacy Movement. The views expressed do not represent that of any organisation the writer is associated with. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
The 12th Malaysia Festival of the Mind will be held this year at various venues.
Organised by the Malaysia Mental Literacy Movement (MMLM), these year’s events will take place at:
• Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Universiti, Bandar Barat, 31900 Kampar, Ipoh; July 16-17; 10am-5pm
• Tunku Abdul Rahman University College, 77, Lorong Lembah Permai Tiga, Tanjong Bungah, 11200 Penang; July 23-24; 10am–5pm
• Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Sungai Long, Bandar Sungai Long, Cheras, 43000 Kajang, Selangor; Mind competitions on August 6; 9am–5.30pm
• Mines International Exhibition & Convention Centre, Mines Wellness City, 43300 Seri Kembangan, Selangor; November 4-6; 9am–6pm
The objectives of MMLM are to introduce and promote various techniques and skills pertaining to the improvement of mental literacy among Malaysians.
Expect exhibitions, talks on topics such as brain power, creativity, emotional intelligence, memory skills and mind mapping, as well as mind games and demonstrations on memory skills, at the events.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/malaysiamentalliteracymovement or www.utar.edu.my/mmlm; contact 03-90193882/03-90860299; fax 03-90198802; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.