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How close are we to Mapping the Human Brain?
The brain seems to be orderly arranged in ever complex and elegant ways, unique to each individual.
We’ve mapped the human genome, tread on every last bit of earth, landed on the moon and plunged the oceans. There are few untrammeled frontiers left, aside from space and the human brain. It is a touch ironic that that which makes us who we are, which has been with us from the very beginning, is one of the biggest mysteries to humanity. There’s little wonder. The human brain is comprised of 80 billion neurons, not to mention the oodles of support cells it needs to function. Neuroscientists aren’t even sure how many different types of brain cells there are.
Even though we now have imaging and computer technology up to the task, experts say it will take decades before the brain is fully mapped. Today, we have a hodge-podge understanding of the organ. Medical science has general knowledge of the regions and where certain functions originate. Yet, there are few areas we know intimately. Billions of neurons fire off in brilliant and quizzical patterns, an ongoing thunderstorm in a more sophisticated arrangement than any symphony. But how this in turn affects thought or behavior is still largely unknown.
One particular project known as the BRAIN Initiative has moved to fill in the gaps. Understanding all the cells and how they are put together is the approach, according to Lydia Ng, director of technology at the initiative. In addition to mapping 86 billion neurons, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the major driver behind this project, plans to build a database of all the information they find.
President Obama’s “moonshot” BRAIN Initiative.
Investigators will use four traits to categorize brain cells: shape, position inside the organ, electrical activity, and gene expression. So far, the team has taken dozens of high-resolution photos of neurons, each stimulated with electricity using a light microscope. This was done while noting the position of each neuron within the subject’s cortex, here performed on mouse models. Allan Jones is the CEO of this project. He says that they are looking at all the parts and how they interact to get a better look at human neurology. According to Allen, so far they’ve found a certain number of cell types, regimented into classes.
In terms of gene expression, the team will focus on sequencing each individual cell’s RNA. They will look for overlap in the four aforementioned variables and complete an entire brain cell taxonomy. This system of classification will help physicists, neuroscientists, and others be able to understand the brain better, and hopefully be better able to diagnose and treat psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders—such as dementia. Not only is the data collected important, the methodology used will aid others in future initiatives.
The effort is exceedingly complex. To successfully map the brain, researchers must identify millions of data points. Electrical readings are first taken by delivering current to neurons via pipettes or tiny tubules only one micron wide. An average human hair is about 75 microns in width. A human red blood vessel is five microns. The electrical current used causes the neuron to fire. From there, researchers can record the cell’s output.
But since neurons branch out everywhere, and there are many varying systems used to understand the neural network, researchers need to apply the same technique over and over again to be able to compare and trace readings from one neuron to another. This methodology is being shared with other research centers so as to have uniformity throughout. This way all brain research data can be seamlessly incorporated.
Of course, it’s unethical to perform such experiments on a living human brain. Because of this, mapping the exact locations of neurons in humans remains difficult. The cells neuroscientists usually experiment with come from patients, from a piece removed say to get at a tumor. Even so, with so many discarded pieces, scientists may be able to put together a fully reconstructed one, and understand how it works in comparison to a mapped mouse brain.
Brainbow or rainbow colored mouse neurons, done with florescent proteins. Photo by Jeff W. Lichtman and Joshua R. Sanes via Wikipedia Commons.
The other big initiative is the Human Connectome Project (HCP), funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As the genome project looked at the DNA inside of cells, the connectome project examines how one neuron connects to another. Simply put, they are investigating the wiring of the brain. This is a combined effort including 11 institutions and 36 individual researchers. The major driving forces behind HCP are The University of Southern California’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, along with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.
Dr. Arthur Toga is a neuroscientist at USC. He calls the images they have collected so far, “colorful spaghetti.” Dazzling fibers in red, green, and blue swirl together, looking more like modern art than neurology. Each color designates what direction the fiber is traveling. Blue fibers travel throughout the brain, green from anterior to posterior, and red from left to right.
A brainbow of mouse neurons. Photo by Stephen J Smith via Wikimedia Commons.
Datasets for this project are publically available, so researchers around the world can use it for their own projects. 1,200 participants made up of twins and normal siblings are having their brains scanned, to see whether our wiring is more or less inherited or not. An MRI and specialized head coils follow and parse out each strand of the brain noninvasively. This is creating the first ever detailed images of a working brain within a living person.
So far, scientists have found that rather than a chaotic jumble, the fibers are actually organized across a grid, something like a 3D layout of Manhattan with streets running in both directions, and elevators climbing up or down. In certain areas, axons overlap one another precisely, creating perfect 90 degree angles. In others, they are weaved together as if they were once woven on a loom. Though they can see where these strands go, they don’t really know where they connect.
According to Toga, it’s the connections that matter, that make us individual and unique. Since the brain is malleable, with some people, different regions are altered from early on in life, while for others change occurs slowly over time. Early data suggests that genetics could influence connectivity. But each individual’s wiring patterns are as unique as a fingerprint. One’s brain scan can even set apart any individual from a larger group.
Investigators are already seeing a relationship between the wiring of the brain and positive personality traits. For instance, Oxford neuroscientists discovered strong evidence that traits such feeling strong life satisfaction and having attained a high education level have certain patterns, while other patterns suggest rule breaking, anger, and even substance abuse.
Neurons firing in a certain pattern. How they do so and where they connect to may tell a lot about a person.
Someday, neuroscientists could even use connectivity profiles to predict a person’s cognitive behavior and fluid intelligence. The "frontoparietal network emerged as most distinctive," in terms of connectivity, according to Toga. Now, neuroscientists are out to find which parts of the brain’s wiring are the same and which individualized, and why that is.
Director of the NIH Dr. Francis Collins wrote in a blog post that he believes this research will help us understand schizophrenia, autism, and other conditions better, and create novel approaches to treating these conditions, perhaps even someday preventing them entirely.
There may be limitations based on approach and interpretation of the brain’s makeup. What’s more, the complexity of the organ means that the more we understand, the more we realize what we don’t know. Toga called the ability to study connectomes as they change with time, “The holy grail.” Though our understanding of the brain will become more and more sophisticated, it is such a complex organ that scientists warn it may never be completely understood.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.