Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Tipping Points – the human brain

Our brain is more mysterious than the least explored regions of the deepest ocean (Independent). Little is known about our oceans although 71% of Earth’s surface is covered with water (Wiki). Less than 0.05% of the ocean floor has been mapped to a level of detail useful for detecting items such as airplane wreckage (eg, MH 370) or the spires of undersea volcanic vents (Scientific American).

It may seem weird but scientists know much more about the surface of the moon and other planets than our oceans. Detailed mapping is available for Venus (98%) and Mars (60%) and our moon even for 100% at a seven meter resolution (Scientific American).
Independent: “Until recently, studies of the brain relied either on looking at gross changes resulting from head injuries, say, or brain tumours, or on charting oxygen and glucose consumption in the brains of the healthy.” On 10 August 2016, a scientific breakthrough was published in which “the switching-off of genes in the human brain has been watched live for the first time” (New Scientist).

The analogy that came to my mind after reading that information was about a computer. Computers read and write data on a storage disk. Sometimes a spot on that disk cannot be accessed for technical reasons. Our brain appears to work along the same lines. A study on mice at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows how such genes stuck in the “on” position can lead to faulty brain wiring that affects learning and memory (eg, Science, ScienceDailyWUSM).

WUSM: “We’ve shown in mice that genes don’t just shut off by themselves; there’s an active mechanism to turn off genes after they’re turned on,” said Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, the Edison Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Department of Neuroscience. “If that mechanism is disrupted in the brain, you see serious consequences for learning and memory.”

The initial results on gene deactivation in humans are a positive surprise: “Scanning the healthy brains of eight people, [Jacob] Hooker [at Harvard Medical School] was surprised how similar the patterns of gene deactivation were between them. “We think of it as a highly dynamic process, so we expected lots of variation between people,” says Hooker. It suggests gene-expression levels are maintained close to a standard pattern, he says.” (New Scientist).

New Scientist: This could mean that changes in gene inactivation are a sign that something is wrong. Hooker and his team plan to compare patterns from healthy people with those of people who have brain disorders to see if they can detect which genes are involved in these conditions. “We’ve already scanned seven patients with schizophrenia, a couple with Huntington’s disease, and have funding to scan 40 Alzheimer’s patients,” says Hooker.

The above is likely to have an immense impact and not only on professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists. Some day, robots may be able to perform brain scans and repair inactive genes. The impact on society at large might be astonishing, like (forced) treatment of criminals, fears, mental disorders, psychopaths, sociopaths. Transhumanism used to be an obscure concept, and even labelled as one of the world’s most dangerous ideas (FT, 2005), but it has never been closer or more realistic than today.

Brainbox – Down Man (1969) – artists, lyrics, video, Wiki


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