Researchers finding new ways to explore the human brain

You don’t have to count them. There were about 100,000 peer-reviewed papers about the brain published last year, according to Henry Markram.

“The amount of data that we’re generating about the brain is rising at an incredible rate,” said Markram, coordinator of The Human Brain Project at EPFL,the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. There, researchers are developing new methods to understanding how the brain operates.

While how the brain works is still very unknown to scientists, researchers are developing new ways to understand its functions. John A. Beal/WikiCommons
While how the brain works is still unknown to scientists, researchers are developing new ways to understand its functions. John A. Beal/WikiCommons

But, Markham argues that all that data is benefiting society at a decreasing rate. Brain diseases are becoming more complex and pharmaceutical companies are pulling out of creating new drugs to fight them, he said.

“We don’t know what to do with the data,” Markram said. “It’s just making professors very famous.”

With advancements in science and technology, though, researchers are hoping to create more effective ways to turn that data into knowledge. A panel of five researchers pointed to better ways to image and model brain function. They discussed the new findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Technological advancements are allowing researchers to gain a better understanding of neurological functions. One way to do this is with “neuromorphics,” computers that have the computing power similar or better than the human brain, said Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University.

The term is becoming well-known to the public. The Washington Post recently published a story calling neuromorphics the first big buzz word of 2014. The increased processing power is allowing researchers to map the brain in ways they never could before, like simulating interactions between neurons. And in the hands of multiple individuals, it may pave the way for more breakthroughs in studying the brain.

“We need to make neural-computing a commodity,” Meier said, meaning on “that non-experts can use.”

Researchers are also finding ways to understand the brain from animal testing. When it comes to structure, there’s not much difference — outside of size — between the human brain and one of a mouse, said Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Using those similarities, researchers have successfully done studies that map electrical currents in parts of the brain when doing different demands.

But taking that information and applying it to humans isn’t so easy.

“The challenge is finding the differences that is the difference,” Koch said.