KHAN: A call to neuroscience

Studying neuroscience will determine the defining scientific breakthrough of our century

For the 19th century, it was classical physics. For the 20th century, it was the human genome project. Now, in the 21st century, scientists are looking to the last great frontier of unsolved complexity: the human mind. We live in an age where many physical, chemical and mathematical theories have been thoroughly studied, a world in which science doomsayers prophesize the approaching limits to our scientific knowledge. Neuroscience stands strikingly apart as a field in which our ignorance far exceeds our knowledge. Understanding the human brain may be the biggest challenge for upcoming generations of scientists. Over the past couple years, institutes across the world have expanded their Neuroscience departments significantly (just look at the ambitious new BrainHub initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, or the European Union’s enormous new Human Brain Project). And yet, the University only offers up to 25 undergraduate positions for the neuroscience major, which can be a deterrent for many interested students.

There is no better person to talk to regarding the future of neuroscience than one of the founding members of the University's neuroscience department, Professor Barry Condron. Professor Condron said: “One thing’s for certain: the discoveries in the brain are likely to be the greatest ones of the century.”

Professor Condron excitedly explained to me how expansive the effects of neuroscience research can be. As brain research has delved deeper into the mysteries of our neural connections, new subfields of all sorts have begun to pop up. From neurophilosophy to neuroethics, neural engineering to neuromathematics, the realm and computation of the brain is so vast that it is almost begging to be explored. Neuroscience is a field built on collaboration; it requires biologists to understand its molecular pathways, engineers to understand its wiring, mathematicians to understand its logic and philosophers to interpret its meaning. The era of single, revolutionary discoveries in science is largely over; discoveries in physics these days are either so encompassing as to be useless (see String theory), or too theoretical to have any foreseeable application (as with the discovery of Higgs Boson). Today, it is the “systems sciences” such as statistics and neuroscience — which focus on emergent patterns — that are flourishing.

The medical and pragmatic applications are by far the greatest strengths of neuroscience. In an astounding discovery, neuroscientists at Harvard succeeded in creating the first brain to brain messaging apparatus in humans. Essentially, the scientists, by placing wirelessly connected electrodes in two subject’s brains, allowed for one subject sitting in France to telepathically communicate the thought of a single word (“ciao”) to another subject 4000 miles away in India. This technology opens doors for patients who have undergone strokes by allowing them to finally communicate without language, not to mention the future prospects of conveying conversations and emotions purely through the brain. Telepathy has always been the stuff of sci-fi, but with the dawn of applied neuroscience, a whole realm of new possibilities has emerged.

Regardless of real world applications, neuroscience has always had a significant personal draw. In one instance, Professor Condron mentioned the dream of neuroscientists to someday compile a map of the “connectome,” which is a full map of all neural connections and synapses in the brain.

“Your connectome is you,” Professor Conron asserted. Regarding the connectome, the professor noted, “If you know all 10^15 connections in your brain, and you understand those, [it is possible to predict] exactly what you are going to do.” In our conversation, he mentioned almost a kind of fear of knowing too much about ourselves, to the point where our enjoyment of life would become demystified in the face of so many empirical facts. In our science-dominated century, contemporary neuroscience is reviving people’s interest in age-old questions about self-perception and the very nature of human consciousness.

The only way the University can capitalize on the shifting trends of neuroscience is to expand the current program and create new interdisciplinary programs with other schools to bring more people into neuroscience. Establishing the Neuroscience department was certainly a huge step, but the University should be doing more to facilitate interest in this rapidly expanding subject. A first step could be to remove the 25-person cap that currently exists on the program, and to move toward a slightly higher cap each year as the department’s facilities expand. Professor Condron noted that there was so much interest in the program four years ago that a lot of students had to be turned down.

He goes on to note that a lot of what he considers under the realm of neuroscience actually falls into the edges of related fields. Many students who are entering engineering or philosophy don't even realize the connections their fields have with neuroscience. Awareness of neuroscience programs and the establishment of more interdisciplinary studies between varying departments could help boost interest in the field that will come to define our century.

Hasan Khan is a Viewpoint Writer.

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