In 1990 Congress and President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the beginning of the “Decade of the Brain,” intended “to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research.” Improvements in imaging technologies were giving us better ways to peer at the workings of the inner universe inside our noggins. Researchers used the imaging to further probe correlations between types of thinking and increased blood flow or neural electrical activity, indirect indicators of areas of the brain at work. In the press coverage of studies, we all saw lots of lovely colorized pictures of certain brain areas “lighting up” when some kind of processing was thought to be involved. If it wasn't a complete way of understanding such a complex organ, with its billions of neurons and trillions of neural connections, at least it was a start.
As a longtime observer of brain research (I oversaw the launch of our sister magazine, Scientific American Mind, which celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year), I have been eagerly tracking such developments. Now we are moving into a new era, one that will be less marked by (of necessity, given the tools that have been available) the reductionist strategy of trying to understand the role of this or that chunk of brain tissue and more by a network-focused understanding of the complex systems involved in any activity.
Already Scientific American authors have described their research in such areas as the neural-circuit underpinnings of mental illnesses (see “Faulty Circuits,” by Thomas R. Insel; April 2010) and simulating the human brain (see “The Human Brain Project,” by Henry Markram; June 2012), among others. Last year the Obama administration announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, with a funding level of more than $100 million in 2014. It joins the Human Brain Project, a $1.6-billion, 10-year effort funded by the European Union.
In our cover story, starting on page 38, neuroscientist Rafael Yuste and geneticist George M. Church preview exciting tools for probing our wetware anticipated in this, “The New Century of the Brain.” The challenge: understanding the buzz of 86 billion neurons, by which properties such as thought and emotion arise. The tools: innovative technologies such as arrays of tens of thousands of electrodes for recording brain cell activity and light-activated chemical switches that turn a neural circuit on or off. I can hardly wait to see what's next.Entries Open
Scientists ages 13 to 18: Entries for the 2014 Google Science Fair—and a chance to win the $50,000 Scientific American Science in Action prize—are now open. The award honors a project that can make a practical difference by tackling an environmental, health or resources challenge. Entries are open until May 11. For more, visit www.ScientificAmerican.com/science-in-action.