The human brain has long fascinated scientists and Hollywood alike, and yet there is still much to be learned about its functions and its defects. Katie Silver examines how scientists from around the world are competing, and collaborating, to advance our understanding of neuroscience.
The notion that we may only be using a fraction of our brains is one of the most captivating concepts to hit science and the film industry since it was first suggested in the late 19th century.
When we think the brain is so complex, it’s because we look at these amazing things that come out of the brain and we try and understand them.HENRY MARKRAM, THE BLUE BRAIN PROJECT
Films like Limitless, featuring actor Bradley Cooper, and new release Lucy, starring Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johansson, explore the notion of an underutilised brain.
In Lucy, Freeman plays a neurologist who mentors Johansson after a drug unlocks her brain’s untapped functions.
‘Ten per cent may not seem like much, but it’s a lot if we look at all we’ve done with it. We possess a gigantic network of information to which we have almost no access,’ Freeman’s character says.
The idea was first posited by philosopher and psychologist William James after he managed to raise child prodigy William Sidis, who had an IQ of more than 250.
His idea really started to gather momentum in 1936 after American writer Lowell Thomas, taking full advantage of poetic licence, put a figure on it—that humans only use 10 per cent of their brain.
Unfortunately, while it’s likely we have some unutilised brain power, it seems the 10 per cent figure was plucked from thin air and is a gross overestimation.
Still, science knows very little about our brains—a situation researchers the world over are looking to remedy.
In 2013, Professor Bob Williamson from the University of Melbourne organised a think-tank on the brain. It produced a report called Inspiring Smarter Brain Research in Australia, and it recommended substantial government investment in a research unit called AusBrain.
‘The American [research] program focuses very much on technology,’ Williamson says. ‘Our program is oriented much more to outcomes … the way in which studies on the brain relate to mental illness, relate to MS, relate to Parkinson’s disease.’
‘However, at the end of the day everyone is going to be focusing on the two really big questions: How can we use this information to get good results for people who are suffering? Can we understand what’s going on in the brain when we love someone, when we listen to a piece of music, when we read a play or a book or a piece of poetry? It’s understanding what makes us human that is such a fascinating question.’
Henry Markram leads the Blue Brain Project and the Human Brain Project in Switzerland—two ambitious endeavours that aim to revolutionise our understanding of the organ.
With funding from the European Union, Markram is attempting to build a working model of a brain in order to simulate and understand what happens when it is affected by various diseases.
‘It’s beautiful, the brain. It’s an incredibly complicated structure, all these neurons and fibres; it’s a very different looking machine,’ he says.
‘What becomes very complex is the emergent properties. When we think the brain is so complex, it’s because we look at these amazing things that come out of the brain and we try and understand them.’
Meanwhile in California, Ralph Greenspan is trying to build on and enhance magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, in order to map how brain cells interact.
‘Our goal is to be able to achieve a higher resolution where we can see—if not every cell—at least small groups of cells and know how information is flowing through the brain, and also to be able to do that in real-time, at the millisecond scale that brains operate at.’
‘Think about how long it takes you to recognise the face of someone you know when they walk in the room,’ Greenspan says. ‘It’s instantaneous. That’s something we want to be able to capture.’
Research into the human brain is a competitive, high-powered and exciting field of science, and one in which Australia is set to become a key player.
Professor Bob Williamson says that within the field, there is a healthy mix of competition and collaboration.
‘At the same time, at the meetings that happen, everyone is very keen to have the resources to collaborate and to be able to put things together and engage with the best groups in Europe and with the best groups in America—and now with the best groups in China and India, as these countries are developing their science as well.’
To coincide with the G20 summit, Brisbane will soon host the first World Brain Mapping Therapeutic Summit. The gathering will bring together top scientists from around the world, to work together to advance our understanding of neuroscience.