In Conversation With Neuroscientists

As researchers understand more about the brain, the boundary between science and theories of the mind get blurrier.
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In 1998, two New Zealand neuroscientists created the first-ever images of what a brain looks like when a person is thinking. In the past 15 years, the field has come a long way. (Reuters)

This week, The Atlantic will travel to the Pacific for a summit all about health, covering everything from cancer and big data to wireless technology and wellness. But for the philosophers among us, the most intriguing topic is neuroscience, a discipline that mixes nascent knowledge of the brain with thousands of years of wonder about the human mind. A handful of scientists and entrepreneurs who will be at the event spoke with me about their latest projects and grandest aspirations, and a few even let their philosophical sides show through. These interviews have been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Figuring out the next 99,999,999,900 neurons

“We have a hundred billion neurons in each human brain,” said Nicholas Spitzer, a neurobiologist and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California-San Diego (which is partnering with The Atlantic on this event). “Right now, the best we can do is to record the electrical activity of maybe a few hundred of those neurons. Gee, that’s not very impressive.”

Spitzer and his team are trying to figure out what’s going on in the rest of those neurons, or brain cells – specifically, what "jobs" they have in the body. But first, a bit of Neuroscience 101:

“As your readers may know, the nerve cells or neurons in the brain communicate with each other through the release of chemicals, called neurotransmitters,” Spitzer said. “This allows a motor neuron that makes a muscle contract signal to the muscle to say, ‘time to contract.’ It seems like kind of a clumsy way to organize a signaling system.”

But sometimes, those neurons change "jobs" – a motor neuron might start signaling another function in the body, for example.

“We thought for a long time that the wiring of the brain was a little bit like the wiring of some sort of electronic device in that the connection of the wires in the ‘device,’ the brain, are fairly fixed. What we’re finding is that the wires can remain in place, but the function of the circuit and the connection of the wires can change,” Spitzer said. “This is something of a heresy.”

What’s next for neuroscience? “The elephant in the room is developing a theory of the mind,” said Spitzer. “Neuroscientists are proud of what they’ve learned, but if you’re a little tough-minded, you might say, ‘Do we actually have a theory of the way in which cognition works, imagination works, creativity operates?’ The answer, fundamentally, is ‘no.’

“These issues have their antecedents, their origins, in the Greek philosophers and the Roman philosophers and undoubtedly the Chinese philosophers who wanted very much to try to understand these issues.”

‘Mapping’ the brain to fight Alzheimer’s and psychiatric illness

Ralph Greenspan, director of the newly created Center for Brain Activity Mapping at the University of California, San Diego, wants to make a "map" of all the electrical signals that happen in the brain. Starting with fruit flies, his team is using new technology to get an in-depth look at how neurons communicate with one another – think MRI, but in a much higher resolution. Their goal? “To be able to see, in a comprehensive way, what the activities and patterns of the brain are that underlie the most interesting things that we do as humans,” Greenspan said. “These are the things that intrigue us, that go wrong.”

In the past, scientists have often narrowly focused their research on pinpointing specific functions, but Greenspan is looking for “a global perspective of what goes on.”

In the long-term, he thinks this will be particularly important for certain kinds of mental illness. “For diseases like autism and schizophrenia, it is now becoming widely accepted that these are diseases of brain-wide connections. It’s not going to be possible to arrest Alzheimer’s effectively or cure psychiatric illness unless we know what’s actually wrong in the brain.”

Getting neuroscientists to walk, chew gum, and do highly complex analysis at the same time

“I’ve always been shocked about how we have incredible abilities to do image processing that were developed through the military and through NASA,” said Jim Brewer, a professor at UCSD, “yet, still in the medical clinic, what we’re doing to process the brain images of patients is to have a human look at it and describe what they see.”

Brewer wants to change the way doctors analyze their patients’ brains through what he calls “quantitative imaging.” Basically, this means using brain scans to get exact measurements of what a brain should look like over time, for men and women, and for people with various illnesses.

This requires looking at the brain as a whole and not as a number of separate parts, as research sometimes does. “Brain function for things like consciousness or higher level processing makes use of many different parts of the brain at once. Imagine that all these different parts of the brain are active at different times, and yet it relates together, and somehow the brain brings it all together and makes it into consciousness,” Brewer said. “We are very far away from understanding [this], and I would argue that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Brewer seemed very optimistic, though, especially because of grant money the Obama administration recently put toward brain research. “Each lab separately has been fairly successful, but having a national direction, almost like a moon shot moment – that is going to be absolutely an exponential increase in our discovery rate.”

The business of brains

As with any kind of science, neurology has partners in the private sector – brain start-ups, so to speak. One such company is Lumosity, which uses neuroscience research to build games and exercises that help people improve their “cognitive fitness.”

“When it comes to our body and physical things, we have all these tools to make our body more fit – get in healthier or better shape,” said Kunal Sarkar, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “You can create an analog for the brain – effectively, a gym for the brain.”

This is a bit more involved than doing Sudoku or the New York Times crossword. “There are these paths that are well understood – research in working memory, etc. We’re not just developing those kinds of understood applications, but also developing new ones. For example, emotional regulation, anxiety, depression – things that obviously have a deep impact on people’s lives. We’re asking the question, ‘Can cognitive training give a person the tools that they need to better cope with some of these challenges?’" Sarkar said.

Of course, Lumosity is a for-profit company dedicated to developing “products and experiences” for the human mind – its ultimate goal is to monetize what researchers know about the brain. But the company’s leaders also want researchers to benefit from what they do. “What we have is the world’s largest data set on human cognition, and we’re working with researchers to dive into that data set,” Sarkar said. “We have 40 million people who do this thing – we can learn things that were previously unknowable.”

A library of brains

This kind of practical application seems rare, however – many of the most exciting projects in neuroscience are designed purely for knowledge’s sake. Jacopo Annese, the director of the Brain Observatory, has started rounding up people who are willing to give him their brains. “While they’re living, we try to create a portrait of the individual from a neuroimaging perspective, so with MRI scans, but also we do interviews to see what their personality is, lifestyle, and also neuropsychology – memory tests, etc.,” he said. “When the brain becomes an object of study, when they relinquish their brains to us – err, when they’re done using them – we can study the brain at the microscopic level.”

His goal is to help researchers understand the connection between behavior and anatomy, despite the uniqueness of each brain. “Instead of trying to make an average brain, we’re trying to make a catalog of as many brains as we can. Imagine that it’s like the Library of Congress for the human brain,” he said. “Imagine: You can match my gender, my occupation, my personal description, my profession [to my brain].”

But Annese also sees a much grander and more abstract purpose in this project: understanding what it means to be human. “I want to provide an anatomical context, but also a human context. I’m interested in the human brain, and we’re not mice, we’re not rats. We’re very unique, and I’m trying to find out what makes us different, rather than just looking at the brain as an object.

“What is happening in our brain that we can feel? That we can have hopes and dreams and shape our environment? I don’t want to sound too philosophical or too hardcore environmental or granola, but we’re really responsible for the planet. It’s important to know what makes us human, because we need to ‘act human.’"

Surprisingly, like a few of the other scientists I spoke with, Annese seemed comfortable admitting that where neuroscience ends, philosophy begins.

“I cannot be sure, but I think if we start painstakingly making the association between the brain and who we are, eventually we’ll have better self-awareness. I’m not 100 percent certain we can explain everything neurologically, but we won’t know until we explain everything that we can in the brain and the nervous system.”

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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