The typical human brain weighs less than 3 pounds, is pinkish-beige in color and has the consistency of gelatin. It’s a crinkly thing, with lots of folds on its surface. Not that impressive. It’s actually kind of yucky-looking, come to think of it, and it’s very fragile. Yet, this is the human command center — where all of the thoughts, emotions and memories take shape.
What’s going on in there? Well, we now know that there are about 80 billion nerve cells, or neurons, sending signals to each other in the brain, forming 100 trillion different connections. Pretty complex stuff.
But to dig deeper, scientists need new tools. That’s where the new BRAIN initiative comes in to play.
President Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN, for short) in early April. Sometimes compared to the Human Genome Project in its scope and potential impact on medicine, BRAIN would enlist teams of scientists to develop the technology for an unprecedented new understanding of how the brain works. It could establish the basis for new treatments for clinical depression, autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and other brain conditions.
In a recent article in ACS Nano, three journal editors, A. Paul Alivisatos, Anne M. Andrews and Paul S. Weiss, combine with Sotiris Masmanidis, Axel Scherer, Rafael Yuste, and several prominent nanoscientists and neuroscientists to explain how advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology over the last decade are poised to develop the tools required for greater understanding of the brain at this important scale.
Since the parts of the brain work at the nanoscale, such tools are ideally suited for probing the pieces, but must ultimately be put together to better understand thought, perception, consciousness, and health and disease. “We hope that [BRAIN] will bring the last decade’s national and international investments in science, technology, and people in nanoscience and nanotechnology to bear on important and challenging problems in brain science,” the scientists and engineers say.
What do you think? Is BRAIN’s goal achievable? Can we really know how the brain works? Or do we just need the right tools? What are some challenges facing BRAIN researchers? How can they overcome them?
“Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping,” ACS Nano
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