Eight ways scientists are unwrapping the mysteries of the human brain – MIT Technology Review

Posted: August 30, 2021 at 1:46 am

Brain development that occurs after birth is also important. Rebecca Saxe at MIT is working to understand the brain structures and activities responsible for social cognition, which allows us to consider the mental states of other people.

Saxe has discovered a particular brain region that is key; by studying how activity in this region and others changes over the course of childhood, she may be able to understand how social abilities develop. She has also found that these brain activity patterns are altered in people with autism spectrum disorders.

Even though researchers are starting to understand some of the processes that govern development and have identified things that can derail it, were far from being able to intervene when such problems occur. But as we gain insights, we could someday test therapies or other ways to address these developmental issues.

Computational neuroscientists use mathematical models to better understand how networks of brain cells help us interpret what we see and hear, integrate new information, create and store memories, and make decisions.

Understanding how the activity of neurons governs cognition and behavior could lead to ways to improve memory or understand disease processes.

Terry Sejnowski, a computational neurobiologist at the Salk Institute, has built a computer model of the prefrontal cortex and analyzed its performance on a task in which a person (or machine) has to sort cards according to a rule thats always changing. While humans are great at adapting, machines generally struggle. But Sejnowskis computer, which imitates information flow patterns observed in the brain, performed well on this task. This research could help machines think more like humans and adapt more quickly to new conditions.

Aude Oliva, the MIT director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, uses computational tools to model and predict how brains perceive and remember visual information. Her research shows that different images result in certain patterns of activity both in the monkey cortex and in neural network models, and that these patterns predict how memorable a certain image will be.

Research like Sejnowskis may inspire smarter machines, but it could also help us understand disorders in which the function of the prefrontal cortex is altered, including schizophrenia, dementia, and the effects of head trauma.

Researchers are trying to determine the genetic and environmental risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases, as well as the diseases underlying mechanisms.


Improving prevention, early detection, and treatment for diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinsons, Huntingtons, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and ALS would benefit millions of people around the world.

Yakeel Quiroz, at Massachusetts General Hospital, studies changes in brain structure and function that occur before the onset of Alzheimers symptoms. Shes looking for biomarkers that could be used for early detection of the disease and trying to pinpoint potential targets for therapeutics. One potential biomarker of early-onset Alzheimers that shes founda protein called NfLis elevated in the blood more than two decades before symptoms appear. Quiroz has also identified a woman with a protective genetic mutation that kept her from developing cognitive impairments and brain degeneration even though her brain showed high levels of amyloid, a protein implicated in Alzheimers development. Studying the effects of this beneficial mutation could lead to new therapies.

Researchers at the Early Detection of Neurodegenerative Diseases initiative in the United Kingdom are analyzing whether digital data collected by smartphones or wearables could give early warnings of disease before symptoms develop. One of the initiatives projectsa partnership with Boston Universitywill collect data using apps, activity tracking, and sleep tracking in people with and without dementia to identify possible digital signatures of disease.

As we learn more about the underlying causes of neurodegenerative diseases, researchers are trying to translate this knowledge into effective treatments. Advanced clinical trials targeting newly understood mechanisms of disease are currently under way for many neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimers, Parkinsons, and ALS.

Connectomics researchers map and analyze neuronal connections, creating a wiring diagram for the brain.

Understanding these connections will shed light on how the brain functions; many projects are exploring how macro-scale connections are altered during development, aging, or disease.

Mapping these connections isnt easythere may be as many as 100 trillion connections in the human brain, and theyre all tiny. Researchers need to find the best ways to label specific neurons and track the connections they make to other neurons in remote parts of the brain, refine the technology to collect these images, and figure out how to analyze the mountains of data that this process produces.

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Eight ways scientists are unwrapping the mysteries of the human brain - MIT Technology Review

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