Unlocking the Innermost Secrets of our Brains
By Shlomo Maital
In his excellent reportage, “mapping the brain’s inner language” (NYT Feb. 26, p. 7), James Gorman tells how R. Clay Reid left a top job as Harvard Medical School professor, to join the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, in 2012 (an institute funded by a huge grant from Microsoft scion Paul Allen). He did it, for the freedom to research the mouse brain. Why? Because many kinds of research can’t yet be done on humans, and the brains of mice and even flies “share common processes with the human brain”. In particular, Reid has tackled the million neurons in the mouse’s visual cortex. The visual cortex is the part of the cortex that processes visual information; it’s in the back of the brain (see above).
Harvard too has a mouse project. The Human Connectome project (after the ‘genome’ and ‘proteinome’ projects) tries to build a structural map of the mouse brain, down to the amazing level of packets of neurochemicals at the tips of brain cells!
How do Reid and other neuroscientists study the mouse brain? First, a mouse is trained to look at an image. Then, it learns to press a lever when the original image appears, among several others. Reid studies what happens in the two second period, during which the photons of the image hit the retina, the brain sends info to the cortex, the neurons in the cortex do some computation, and send a message to the mouse’s paws to press the lever. This is a complex process involving genetics, electricity, and chemistry. It is revealed in electron micrographs that show every neuron and every connection in the mouse’s visual cortex.
In the end, Reid notes, the brain features the ‘molecules’ that underlie behavior.
Understanding how the brain processes information and then tells us to act on it will be a huge breakthrough. It may help us cure awful neurological diseases (ALS, Parkinsons). Perhaps, one day, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, a terrible war no one wanted that needlessly, stupidly, killed 16 million people (civilians and soldiers) and wounded 20 million more !, we will understand the parts of the human brain that create senseless violence and death.