Next step for Neuroscience: Neurobiological engineering (part 2)

Breakthrough had the privilege of listening to Dr. Jasanoff and Dr. Boyden speak at Sidney Pacific Presidential Fellows Distinguished Lecture at MIT, where they introduced the history of neuroimaging, limits and challenges of the current techniques, and the future role they hope neurobiological engineering will take in order to deepen our understanding of the brain. Part one will introduce the professors and give an overview of the history of neuroimaging and the limits of the current techniques, while Part two of this article will focus on the current challenges and the future roles Dr. Jasanoff and Dr. Boyden see as pivotal for neurobiological engineers.

Dr. Boyden at his MIT lab

Challenges of Neurobiological engineering

In creating the new tools, Dr. Jasanoff sees space and time as two main challenges of neurobiological engineering. Firstly, space is a limit not because of the size of the neurons, but because of the minuscule size of the individual connections and the neurotransmitters that cross the synaptic cleft from one neuron to the other. Secondly, time is complicated crucial as the neural events span from millisecond events to events that take years, such as memories and learning. Brain disorders are also developed over long periods of time, which is why we can’t focus solely on the millisecond events that EEG detects.   

His challenge to the audience was to look for ways to build a brain. Although extracting the whole anatomy of our brain (cf. Connectome project) is important, the full extraction of all the neural tissues and connections will only have limited meaning. Without the complete knowledge of how all the neural pathways integrate and interact to make a person become fully functional, one will always fall short in thoroughly explaining the neural mechanisms underlying our behavior. For example, the neuroscientists have succeeded in identifying the full neural anatomy of the flatworm (C. Elegans), but they cannot interpret all the firing patterns that underlie its function. Likewise, we must look for ways to measure function, which could have massive potential in the medical field, as we could model diseased brains and diagnose neural disorders at a much lot deeper level.

Connectome Project featuring the connections of our brain

Moreover, new technology could also improve the pharmaceutical industry, which not only takes 9 years on average to pass a new drug, but also fails 92% of the time with the cost around 850 million dollars for each trial to make it to the market.

The moral of his story was that without understanding the underlying mechanisms and the substance of the brain, it is virtually impossible to repair them. It is like throwing moonshots, where there are high risks independent of its therapeutic effects. Hence, we must make preparatory steps to get to the moon.

Future of neuroimaging

In order to meet the needs of the challenges listed, we have to improve the technological tools that are in disposal and look for creative ways to find the causal relationships within our brain. Dr. Boyden noted that we not only have to consider electrical properties, but also the chemical properties that play a huge role in neurotransmission. The recent technological breakthroughs, such as optogenetics and expansion microscopy, validated his statement, showing that exploring new ways could lead to a promising future in this field.

The challenges Dr. Jasanoff ‘s and Dr. Boyden have has set for the neurobiological engineering community are certainly not easy easy tasks, but they certainly should bring excitement for those who are hoping to advance in this field. The brain therapies’ extensive side effects, which is difficult to avoid due to the brain’s numerous and diverse intrinsic properties, could be mitigated through the use of more sophisticated tools.

Furthermore, better tools will help uncover the laws underlying the brain. For instance, it has been discovered that humans could function with less than half of their neurons alive (cf. Cameron Mott). This shows that ultra-reductionist view of trying to find every neuron is not necessary to identify the natural laws that make our brain functional.

Dr. Jasanoff and Dr. Boyden have addressed both the restraints and the issues of the current techniques, but they ended the talk with optimism. Knowing that they will need people from various backgrounds to provide new perspectives to resolve this mystery brought smiles to their faces. Indeed, the general consensus was that these challenges, which are pushing the researchers to their limits, are what makes them excited, as these problems necessitate thinking beyond their box of knowledge and invent something new.

Understanding how our mind works has been one of the most long-lived puzzles of the natural world, deceiving countless number of philosophers and scientists of the past. However, with new technology, we can shed unprecedented light upon this conundrum and revolutionize the current field of neuroscience. With the amount of support and collaboration Dr. Jasanoff and Dr. Boyden have amassed today, the full deciphering of our brain seems to be closer than ever.

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