The Future of the Brain

Posted December 1, 2005

Today as part of the grand opening of MIT's new neuroscience building, the Picower Institute held a big symposium on the Future of the Brain. Of special note was the morning's series of five distinguished speakers, each one of them a Nobel laureate. You don't see that too often, so naturally I had to attend. Here are some random thoughts, on the topic of thoughts...

There are about a thousand different odor receptors in humans, which together constitute about 3-5% of our whole genome. This is a little surprising, but on the other hand, having an extensive library of receptors that bind to lots of molecules with specificity sounds like a marvelous thing for any organism to have in its DNA, even if they're not immediately being used.

Have you seen those neat functional MRI images of active regions in the human brain? Well, people have been doing the same sort of thing to fruit-fly brains. Granted, it's not the same exact thing... in that you have to decapitate the flies and image their brains under a two-photon microscope, but still I'm amazed that people can get this sort of brain-function information at that tiny resolution! Very cool.

Dr. Brenner performed one of the most amazing and selfless feats I've ever seen in a lecture series. The first speaker had gone on far too long, so to put the symposium back on schedule, Dr. Brenner just spoke for a few minutes and then sat down. Astounding... I've never failed to be amazed how speakers never realize that scheduling is indeed a zero-sum game, so taking "just a few more minutes" is taking them from someone else. You'd think that if you're smart enough for a Nobel, you're smart enough to figure out how to plan a talk of a given length, heh heh. But way to go, Dr. Brenner, for bringing this to everyone's attention.

Dr. Watson (of Watson and Crick) is a bit of a "character". He was rather critical of the work and direction of the institute he was helping to inaugurate, and not a little jealous of the attention and funding the place is getting compared to his own home.

A lot of deep scientific problems never actually get solved, but they just fade away into irrelevancy. "What is the vital force of life?" turned out not to be a question that has an answer, for instance, despite a lot of effort trying to find the elusive line separating living from nonliving chemistry... in the end it's more an arbitrary definition than a great discovery waiting to be made. In the same way, it was argued that the question of consciousness may also turn out to be a non-question. Once we understand more of how complex networks behave and how the brain works, the whole issue of mysterious conscious "qualia" versus "mere computation" may simply evaporate.

Alexander Shulgin, author of Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved is also a bit of a character, in a good way. Creator and self-tester of hundreds of psychoactive compounds, he posed a neat question: here you have a vial of a chemical that, so far as you know, has never been naturally created in the universe, and therefore which the human body has never, ever seen. So... what dose do you start with? Heh heh.

25% of the body's resting energy is used by the brain.

Nature versus nurture is probably a false dichotomy, because even the genes are relying on certain regularities in the environment to save the trouble of having to code everything internally. For instance, there is no gene that can be activated to turn a stem cell into a neuron: there is just a gene that primes a cell to become a neuron in a particular chemical environment provided by the rest of the body during development.

All in all, a fascinating lecture series, and a great start for an institute that hopefully will make a significant mark on neuroscience.