We Need to Talk About the Brain

Vincent Pieribone wonders why the amount of effort that went into building the iPhone has not gone into understanding one aspect of the brain.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What have we discovered recently about the brain, and what still remains a mystery?

Vincent Pieribone: Well, recent, it’s hard to say.  I mean, I don’t want to be cynical or anything, but it’s just that the brain is so incredibly complicated, even in insects it’s actually so complicated in other words.  And to study it is so difficult.  The difficulty in studying it was partially makes it so complicated without destroying it in some way.  So the human brain is totally inaccessible largely to scientists because it’s really just a part of a person’s being and it can’t – tests of the blood you can draw from people, or other organs and tissues you can even take.  But the brain, you really can’t ever really study that that closely without damaging it.  So, we’ve had to invent very creative ways to look at it, like MRIs and these kinds of things.  But they’re still limiting in the way that they’ve helped us understand.  And certainly the human brain is always the one that’s the most difficult to understand because it’s really the highest functioning machine on the entire earth, without a doubt because of its size and what it does and the constraints it has on it, it’s absolutely an amazing instrument.  But it’s also this incredibly difficult to get in and look at.  And that’s where my science – that’s why later in my life, in my career, I went into the direction of technology, trying to develop me ways to study it because I think we’re a little bit – it’s kind of mean to say, but a little bit stagnant right now, I think.  Unfortunately we’re really making these great leaps forward that we need.  We all want to know these big questions that have been on our minds.  So for hundreds of years of our consciousness, about even morality and things all of which emanates from our brain, and we don’t really get close to those, unfortunately because the basic functional elements of the brain and how it does it’s little things still remain a mystery to us. 

A lot of work has been done recently in animals to give us an understanding of basic systems, of sensory systems and how things work.  But even there, even the rodent whisker system, which is heavily studied for years and years about how they look with their whiskers, how they feel with them.  It’s a system which people have access to, but it still remains a mystery, amazingly enough, what it’s able to do and how it does it even though there are thousands of papers published on it actually.  We haven’t made those leaps that I think all of us, especially me, from when I was young that I would have hoped that we would be making by now. 

I was reading journals when I was in high school 30 years ago, and I imagined, oh it’s going to be these great leaps.  And we’ve seen leaps in our society around technology, we’ve seen leaps around thought, maybe even politically you could even say.  But in this kind of science, although we’ve done a lot of work in it and we’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge, but it hasn’t answered the big questions yet.  And that’s disappointing to me, I have to say.  But exciting in the same because it offers the challenge that still it out there is a challenge.  So, I always hope that we get better minds to continue to apply to it, I guess. 

Question: Why are we slow in making advances in the field?

Vincent Pieribone: The amount of effort that went into building an iPhone has not really gone into an effort to understanding one aspect of the brain.  And it would seem to be more important to me.  And unfortunately I think in our country, and maybe this is a generalization, but a lot of the best minds in our country don’t go into science, at least academic science like they used to, I think. They tend to find their way into business or into other areas that maybe are more lucrative or more seen as interesting, even medicine than basic science.  That’s kind of sad to me.  I’m amazed at how difficult it is to find people who are really excited about doing this as it used to be. 

And with that change that I’ve noticed, funding is up, I guess.  We’re very thankful to Obama for giving us lots of money last year as part of the stimulus money. That was a huge boost.  I think it was a huge emotional boost to scientists.  I’ll be completely honest with you.  When we saw this money come out, we just assumed it was not going to go anywhere near us, and the NIH got an enormous boost and then it was really breathtaking to all of us that the administration, that young of an administration, saw that much compelling interest in studying basic science and that was very exciting I have to say.  I think NIH got more grants last year submissions than they have gotten in the past 10 years because people were so excited about this.  So, funding is a big deal really.  And I’m always saddened by the fact that the technology that we use, unfortunately is somewhat primitive compared to the technology that it took to make Avatar.  And the kind of beautiful amazing stuff that our society has to work with sometimes doesn’t trickle down to us, or it trickles a little bit later to use that are trying to study these aspects of the brain.  It’s not a complaint, it would be nice to see that happen a little bit faster, I guess. 

Question: Is the quality of science education impacting the talent in the field today?

Vincent Pieribone: The whole stem concept that’s in high school now is absolutely the case.  And I think people recognize it, but those are the hard things that kids unfortunately have to learn.  It’s just math.  We need math and we need science and technology.  And I think it sounds old fashioned and everything, but that’s the basics to get into the rest of this stuff.  What we are at in our understanding the brain and neuroscience is a very high level, the complexity is quite high.  In other words, being a neuroscientist is a multi-faceted scientific knowledge and you’ve got to start really young to catch up there.  Like any area of technology, you really need to be schooled in it very young.  If you want to be a cutting edge programmer, or you want to work at Google, you really should be starting early and learning early.  And as long as we can excite students – I spend a lot of my time trying to go around to high schools and going to junior high schools trying to inspire kids in the this area and make it a little less dry and a little bit less perceived to be boring. 

Science fiction is huge, but it doesn’t translate into science reality for students.  They love to go see science fiction films, but I think science is not nearly as exciting today as the science fiction is.  I got a lot of people who show up in the lab and they think every day is going to be like Mr. Spock running around the deck of the Enterprise making huge discoveries and stuff.  And it’s a little slow.  It’s a lot of pie petting and you know, things don’t work and like any job, it’s really like any job.  So, it’s not like we’re out there in the field weathering the storm and doing that kind of fieldwork.  As much as people think it is.  So, maybe that gets people less enthused.  But there are moments in your career, you work very hard on something and suddenly there’s that ah-ha moment which I don’t think you get in any other business. When you’ve discovered something for the first time and you know at that moment that you’re the only person in the entire world that knows that bit of information.  You know, you’ve just discovered some workings of the body.  And maybe it’s a little bit that will end up in a journal, but you see it for the first time, and for me, I can’t replace that.  Even for men now, it’s like a kid, you get that kind of feeling.  It’s absolutely overwhelming.  I can’t imagine not getting that.  I can’t imagine a job where you didn’t have that kind of feeling.  So that’s why I think it’s the most exhilarating job I could ever do.  I can’t imagine ever doing anything but it because I get a chance to play.  I have a lab full of toys.  We get to work on projects and we work on projects that have real meaning.  You know, People’s lives hang in the balance of things we discover. 

I’m exaggerating what I do particularly, but each incremental thing we do shows up in textbooks and you see it repeated later to you, and it’s very exciting to know you had some impact on that, whatever little bit it is.  So, I think it’s a thrilling business.  And I think if people stick in it long enough, they feel the same way.  But maybe it’s just the shock of getting into it and realizing that you have to write grants and you have to teach and there’s tenure and all the business of you know – but it’s really not that bad. 

Recorded on January 21, 2010