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Human Brain Research – The Developing Tools

Nano TechnologyInnovation. Technology breakthroughs. Interdisciplinary efforts. All of this is providing the opportunity for more scientific and comprehensive brain research. More specifically, the convergence of breakthroughs in biogenetics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience; coupled with advanced microelectronics and data processing; has led to new tools and devices for brain research and understanding. We highlight a few of these to show the possibilities.

First there are advanced imaging technologies that have led to new techniques and instrumentation that is already being used. Short summaries of the most common are provided in a post on psychcentral.com. (1) These include:

  • PET (Positron Emission Tomography). PET uses small amounts of radioactive materials injected into the body, a special camera, and a computer to evaluate organ and tissue functions. By identifying changes at the cellular level, PET appears be able to detect which parts of the brain are affected during specific tasks.
  • Variations of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) such as Functional MRI (fMRI) and Diffusion MRI (also called Diffusion Tensor Imaging – DTI). With fMRI the small changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity are measured and mapped. Thus, it is possible to determine which parts of the brain are handling critical functions or to evaluate the effects of stroke or other disease. With DTI the diffusion of water molecules in the brain is measured. Since water molecules within brain tissue tend to diffuse most rapidly along parallel bundles of fibers, this makes it possible to estimate the location, orientation, and anisotropy of the brain’s white matter tracts. In other words, it is possible to measure the pathways and structure of fiber nerve bundles connecting various parts of the brain. This understanding of which part of the brain is connected (or not connected) to which other parts can be used to investigate brain “malfunctions” due to injury or disease.
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG). Instead of measuring electrical impulses, MEG measures magnetic fields outside the head, produced by electrical activity occurring naturally in the brain. Thus, it is possible to produce far more precise and higher resolution images of the brain than before and even to determine the function of various parts of the brain. To do this, very sensitive arrays of magnetometers called SQUIDS (superconducting quantum interference devices developed by quantum physicists) are used. Typically, these sensors are housed in a cooled, helmet-shaped container in which the subject places on their head during testing.

To summarize, the above tools allow researchers to identify the parts of the brain that are active during a specific task or event by showing on a screen the parts of the brain that “light up” under different circumstances. Why is this important? Unlike earlier beliefs, it has now been observed that even relatively simple tasks require the activation of numerous and specific interconnected parts of the brain. Therefore, understanding brain connections and interactions is much more important in addressing brain issues such as injury or dementia than was previously thought.

But these imaging techniques are only a start. Following are a few examples of developing, longer-range possibilities.

  • In one example, real time imaging of interactions at the cellular level, coupled with advanced data processing, is being used to reveal patterns of neural activity. Specifically, “Scientists have devised a new system that lets them watch human neurons grown in the lab find and form connections with their signaling partners, an essential process in developing human brains. The processing of “wiring up” is thought to go awry in a number of serious disorders, including autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia – but it’s hard to study.” (2)
  • And there is another experimental approach to creating brain wiring diagrams that combines genetic engineering and nanoscale imaging. This technique monitors biofluorescence in insect brains to create maps of the neural connections of the entire brains. In other words, “Scientists have developed new technology that allows them to see which neurons are talking to which other neurons in live, genetically engineered fruit flies.” This technology which traces the flow of information across synapses is called TRACT (Transneuronal Control of Transcription). “TRACT allows researchers to observe which neurons are “talking” and which neurons are “listening” by prompting the connected neurons to produce glowing proteins.” (3)
  • And then there is the gene editing technology called CRISPR. This technique has been used to create genetic mutations that have been associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, making it possible to study these “defects” in the laboratory. (4)
  • One final example. There is a new, high-sensitivity, laser-based technique that can be used to look inside a person’s skull and measure brain blood flow. This technique, based on Diffuse Correlation Spectroscopy (DCS), is called “interferometric diffusing wave spectroscopy,” or iDWS. “Laser light is shined on the head; as photons from the laser pass through the skull and brain, they are scattered by blood and tissue. A detector placed elsewhere on the head, where the photons make their way out again, picks up the light fluctuations due to blood motion.” (6) The information gathered about blood flow can be used to help patients with traumatic brain injuries and strokes.

As the above examples show, progress is being made rapidly in developing new tools for brain research and understanding. But all of this is just a start. In future blogs we will give additional examples of new techniques, how they are being utilized, and even some results. You are welcome to comment or add to our list.


  1. Michael Demitri, “Types of Brain Imaging Techniques,” July 17, 2016, https://psychcentral.com/lib/types-of-brain-imaging-techniques/
  2. Sergiu P. Pasca, “New Technique Lets Researchers Watch Human Brain Circuits Begin to Wire-Up,” July 18, 2017, https://www.bbrfoundation.org/content/new-technique-lets-researchers-watch-human-brain-circuits-begin-wire
  3. “New technology will create brain wiring diagrams,” California Institute of Technology, January 12, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180112095938.htm
  4. Michael Talkowski, “Genetic Anomalies Frequently Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorders Can Now Be Efficiently Recreated in the Lab,” April 11, 2016, https://www.bbrfoundation.org/content/genetic-anomalies-frequently-associated-neurodevelopmental-disorders-can-now-be-efficiently
  5. “New technology for measuring brain blood flow with light,” University of California – Davis, April 11, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180427144549.htm

Human Brain Research: Major Investments Around the Globe

Economic PowersIn the last few years, there has been an increased awareness of the importance of advanced brain research, and this has been accompanied by major investments by governments around the globe. So, who are the key players, and what are their goals? We start with our own country.

In support of broader brain research, on April 2, 2013 President Obama launched the so-called “BRAIN Initiative.” It stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies.” Three government agencies are involved: The National Institutes of Health (NIH), The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and The National Science Foundation (NSF). The White House offered this description of the possible long-term outcomes of the more than one billion dollar BRAIN Initiative: “The BRAIN Initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function. It aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI).” More information can be found on the Web site braininitiative.org.

In addition, a report issued by NIH in June 2014 entitled “Brain 2025, A Scientific Vision” states: “Over recent years, neuroscience has advanced to the level that we can envision a comprehensive understanding of the brain in action, spanning molecules, cells, circuits, systems, and behaviors… The focus [of the BRAIN Initiative] is not on technology per se, but on the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insight about how the nervous system works in health and disease.”

But the United States is not alone in large, high priority, billion dollar efforts to understand the human brain. Also in 2013, the European Union launched a major effort, parallel to the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, called “The Human Brain Project.” The main aim of this project, as described on its Web site (humanbrainproject.eu), is to “empower brain research toward understanding the human brain and its diseases to advance brain medicine and computing technology.” Specifically, the European project is focused on helping researchers access and share collections of brain data from different species, thus allowing them to accelerate the understanding of the brain through advanced computer simulations. It is believed this will ultimately lead to the development of targeted new treatments and diagnosis for brain related diseases and trigger new approaches to brain inspired systems for AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics.

Then in 2014, Japan initiated its ten-year Brain/MINDS (Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies) Project. Its goal is to map the primate brain to accelerate understanding of human disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Although this program is much smaller than its U.S. and European counterparts, it is seen as key because it is based on a unique, genetic primate population which is a closer match to the human brain than the small animals being used in other projects. For more information see the Web site brainminds.jp/en and the October 2014 article in Nature (1)

And one cannot ignore China. The 2016 Chinese R&D five-year plan lists Brain Research as one of the nation’s top priorities, with resources to be channeled through the “China Brain Project.” Although China has lagged the US and Europe in brain research, this focus and the accompanying investment may change that. As noted in an article in Nature in 2016: “China’s neuroscience community is growing — the Chinese Neuroscience Society now has 6,000 members, compared to just 1,500 ten years ago; the country has tens of millions of patients with psychiatric or degenerative brain disease that will facilitate clinical studies; and it has hundreds of thousands of research monkeys. This last factor has already allowed Chinese researchers to take the lead in using gene-editing technologies to produce models of autism and other conditions.” (2)

So, the foundations have been laid, but many things have changed on the world stage since 2013. As far as the US is concerned, the level of government support for science research is a growing issue. If budgets are tight, what should the priority of brain research be? What are the recent results from these initiatives/projects? Does it matter whether the US has a leadership position? These are some of the questions we will address in future posts.


 

  1. David Cyranoski, “Marmosets are stars of Japan’s ambitious brain project: Ten-year brain-mapping effort will use monkeys to study human neural and mental disorders,” Nature, October 8, 2014, https://www.nature.com/news/marmosets-are-stars-of-japan-s-ambitious-brain-project-1.16091
  2. David Cyranoski, “What China’s latest five-year plan means for science: Oceanography, brain science and stem cells among research fields that look set to grow,” Nature, March 18, 2016, https://www.nature.com/news/what-china-s-latest-five-year-plan-means-for-science-1.19590#/brain

 

Human Brain Research – An Introduction

Brain IntelligenceHumans have explored much of the earth and some of the depths of the oceans, but there is something even more mysterious and powerful which is much closer to us. It is the human brain, the most complex living structure that we know of in the universe! But to date, the human brain has only been explored in a relatively limited fashion.

We know that the human brain inspires or controls not just our actions, but our emotions and personalities, our likes and our dislikes, our beliefs and our cravings. In other words, we know that many observable effects originate from the human brain—physical movements, mental diseases, old-age dementia, cowardice, piety, cruelty, habits, fanaticism, and more. But we have only limited knowledge about which specific structures and/or interconnections within the brain cause such effects, and more important, how. Thus, we are primitive in our trial-and-error approaches to modifying those physical and mental traits considered harmful with things such as drugs or electrical stimulation or surgical interventions.

One thing we do know: The brain is not just a rational computer. It directs the actions and affects the beliefs of an individual, but it varies from one individual to the next. Think about the contradictions created by brains of very different people. The brain of Hitler made him kill seven million of his citizens, mostly because they were Jewish; while the brain of Mother Theresa made her help hundreds of people who were too poor to help themselves, no matter what their race or religion. Genghis Kahn, known as the “scourge of God,” is famous for his extreme acts of cruelty during his conquests in western Europe; while Francis of Assisi practiced charity to all living beings, including (unusual for the times) animals. These are just a few examples of individuals who were led by their brains to live very different lives.

We also know that, controlled by their brains, different people react differently to unusual circumstances, such as “silence and solitude.” This type of environment can spur creativity in some but can lead to insanity in others. And both insanity and creativity can coexist in the same brain as in the case of famous artists like Van Gogh.

The human brain also has caused specific populations to migrate across the globe over time, ultimately populating the whole earth. But not all populations were led to move from their original location. Some preferred to stay where they were, even if the environments were extremely harsh. Why?

And the human brain allows us to transmit ideas and knowledge from one generation to the next. As J. F. Kennedy once said, referring to democracy, “A man may die. Nations rise and fall. But an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”

What would advances and breakthroughs in understanding and controlling the human brain mean for humanity and the business community? The possibilities are vast, and progress is being made. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser for discovering the networks of cells that form the brain’s navigational system. This fundamental work in neuroscience on a nanoscale could have applications in Alzheimer’s and other diseases, but it is just the beginning. Through brain research, we may find infinite new ways to harness its power and use it—for good or for bad. We do not know yet what they all are, but they will have a major impact on humanity, including human interactions and even business interactions.

So, what are the major brain research programs? What new tools are available for investigating how the brain functions? What are the latest results? We will explore these questions and more in future blogs. If you are interested, check back occasionally and feel free to add your comments or make suggestions for future topics.