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Is This the Century We'll Unlock the Mysteries of the Brain?

A sketch of the human brain by sixteenth century anatomist Andreas Vesalius.
Wikimedia Commons

Consciousness is what makes us human, and it remains one of the greatest mysteries. Some say this is the century scientists will finally unravel the secrets of the human brain.

In 1961, President Kennedy laid down a challenge - put a man on the moon - and the federal government poured billions of dollars into space exploration. In 2013, President Obama launched an initiative to map another frontier, this one right inside our own skulls. The BRAIN Initiativeis a fifteen-year, $100 million project to develop technologies that would enable researchers to simultaneously map the electrical activity of every neuron in the human brain.

The BRAIN Initiative grew out of an idea first proposed by Dr. Rafael Yuste, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. His own research is motivated by a passionate desire to understand the underpinnings of debilitating neurodegenerative diseases and mental health conditions. Frustrating experiences as a young doctor unable to help schizophrenic patients drove him to leave his home country of Spain and launch a new career in neurobiology research.

Dr. Rafael Yuste, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, has declared this the century we'll unlock the mysteries of the brain.
Credit Courtesy of Columbia University
Dr. Rafael Yuste, professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, has declared this the century we'll unlock the mysteries of the brain.

Earlier this year, he coauthored an article in Scientific American proclaiming this the New Century of the Brain. He says we're poised to make major inroads into the mysteries of the human brain - memory, imagination, language, music, and, ultimately, consciousness itself. Such understanding could usher in a whole new era in how we handle disease, crime, education, and more. But we'll need as yet undeveloped tools and technologies to get there, and that's where the BRAIN Initiative comes in.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Yuste says he's encountered plenty of skeptics and critics who say it's impossible, too expensive, even that the resulting knowledge would be too dangerous. Yuste is sensitive to that last concern, and says that's exactly why it's so important that this kind of research be guided and overseen by government, and the public at large.

As for the idea that a whole-brain activity map is just too big a project, Yuste counters that all large-scale projects, including the space program and the Human Genome Project, have faced similar pushback and proven their worth in the end. In fact, key players from the Human Genome Project have become key proponents of the BRAIN Initiative.

On a deeper level, Yuste insists that creativity and big ideas - even dreams and fantasies - need to be as much a part of science as planning and pragmatism. Chasing the seemingly impossible inspires us, and we humans crave inspiration, almost as much as knowledge. Perhaps a brain activity map will help us understand why.

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