The chaotic mesh of trillions of electrically-pulsating neurons has been a perplexing study for scientists since times immemorable. The advances made in our understanding of the brain has propelled neuroscience as one of the hottest frontiers in brain sciences.
However, neuroscience now is a completely different ball-game from what it used to be. The last decade has seen great leaps in our understanding of this mysterious system within our bodies, with several prodigious advances being made in deciphering the diagnostic and molecular techniques of the complexity brain structure and how these may translate into everyday behavior and disease.
Let us make a quick exploration of some of the major advances and discoveries in brain science in the past decade and check out how these have transformed and contributed to how we think about the most illuminated and yet most elusive part of our body – the brain.
2001 saw the birth of the ingenious Human Genome Project (HGP) that served to sequence and map our genes helping boost our understanding of the genetic pathways that cause neurological and psychiatric disorders. In the wake of this major advancement came the possibility of assessing & evaluating select degenerative disorders, movement disorders, and epilepsies with a quick and simple blood test – a possibility that was a distant reality merely two decades earlier.
Thus, this marked the drastic shift from costly and intrusive procedures such as spinal taps, biopsies and brain scans for diagnosing neurological disorders in people with hereditary diseases and genetic abnormality to simple diagnostic tests that could swirl up genetic materials from the blood samples of patients to make a quick identification of clusters of disease-related genes and thus, home in on Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia, and autism, among other disorders.
The project has likely transformed made leaps of scientific achievements in showing us the way we read genetic indications and treat brain and neurological disorders in the future.
Why each of us have different approach to decision making has intrigued neuroscientists and psychologists for years. In 1992, Nobel Prize winners, Daniel Kahneman and Tversky, brought to light a study that gave a new perspective to this question -they propounded cognitive bias through meticulous research on human judgment and decision-making.
This cognitive bias is reflective of the systematic patterns of deviations that individual brains make from the norm or rationality in judgements, affecting decision making and inferences about people or situations.
Thus, individuals tend to perceive inputs differently, creating their own “subjective social reality” out of them. The study of cognitive biases has yielded a continually evolving list of practical implications that it has left on areas that deal with clinical judgment, social psychology, behavioral economics, entrepreneurship, finance, and management.
Deep Brain Stimulation
What started with an in-ear implantable brain device, cochlear implant for hearing-impaired, in early 1980s, later to be followed by a retinal implant in 2013 to treat degenerative eye conditions, has today exploded into advanced implantable therapies such as deep-brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation, bringing relief to individuals suffering from otherwise intractable brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy or lost brain functions resulting from an injury, disease or a stroke, that cripple a vital component of the brain.
Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), a latest addition to the brain science technology, uses electrodes as neural implants within the brain that alter the electrical activity in targeted areas of the brain through electrical signals sent to it through a pocket-device (resembling an iPod) connected on the outside and controlled by the patient.
In fact, further researches on these lines promise major advances in the treatment of disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, depression and pain, among other conditions.
New Roles for Glial Cells
The last decade has brought out the Glial cells in a new light – cells that have been previously perceived as unimportant and often dismissed by neuroscientists as mere packaging material with a complimentary and marginal role because of their non-electrical aspect.
New imaging methods have opened new frontiers and allowed a more thorough look at the Glial cells. Finally, they have helped uncover more about these complicated and diverse cells found in abundance in the nervous structure, attributing a pivotal role to the Glial cells in the brain functions of memory and learning.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
A wave of therapeutic techniques, such as mindfulness meditation and dialectical behavior therapy, targeting the mind–body connection has gained prominence in the past decade or so. Of these the emergence of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in 1960s and 1970s is the most promising- a therapeutic talk therapy that examines how one’s thoughts and feelings influence behavior, helps spot what is wrong in their method of thinking that affect behavior and ways to eliminate those maladaptive beliefs by emphasizing emotional regulation.
Though initially mainly used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders, CBT has since expanded its reach to a wide range of maladies including suicidal thoughts, bulimia, anger, stress and mental illnesses that cause pain.
Memory manipulation or creating false memories is one of the most significant advances of the decade in brain science. It throws considerable light on one of the greatest mysteries of the brain – how neural circuitry stores a memory or a given recollection!
Memory formation as well as recollection is an actively evolving plastic process that involves several different parts of the brain and it was discovered that biochemical processes could cause memories to shift over time or trigger specific memories.
These discoveries have further led scientists to tinker with injectable chemicals that can inhibit memory-forming proteins and erase selective maladaptive feelings or trick one into forming entirely false memories, finding good use in treating several brain-related maladies.
In 2003, the Allen Institute for Brain Science was formed to study the functioning of the brain. This institute build vast free online databases or atlases where they mapped & recorded brain connections or brain mappings, viz. results pertaining to the regions of gene activity and information processing by these genetic circuits.
These free and comprehensive brain activity maps have since significantly contributed in helping research engineers to study the expression of specific cell types and thus, discover genes relevant to certain diseases or behaviors. With funds to the tune of USD 8.7 million flowing in to back it, this project is all set to revamp the way we approach the prognosis and treatment of the several brain diseases and disorders.
The Brain GPS discovery that has made Britt and Edvard Moser the recipients of the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014, relates to discovering “place cells” or “grid cells”- neuronal cells that lie in the hippocampus and fire in a grid-like, hexagonal pattern to track an animal’s updated location. This remarkable discovery has helped in deciphering our spatial reasoning skills or our innate ability to navigate from one place to another
One of the greatest discoveries in brain science in recent times is that of brain plasticity or the ability of the brain to change or reorganize itself by forming new connections between neurons throughout life. This discovery has opened new avenues for anyone interested in boosting mental potentials and abilities to learn.
It is an age-old view that adult brains are less malleable than a kid’s brain. Instead, the concept of brain plasticity has proved the reverse to be true, showing how one can improve the brain and make it sharper and smarter by observing the brain as it learns new information and understanding the mechanisms of plasticity.
This discovery by Ed Boyden presents us with a technique of switching individual neurons on or off with light, thereby altering the cruder standard methods of activating or deactivating neural networks and helping Neuroscience labs elucidate their role in a particular behavior or disease.
Optogenetics has significantly contributed in learning the contribution of neurons to behavior, perception and cognition and deciphering how various brain cells elicit thoughts and movements.