Reaching Toward the Frontiers of Neurology

Friday, Oct. 4, 1:30 pm

As the “The Atlantic Meets the Pacific” conference came to a close, the final panel dealt with the topic of “Brain Mapping, Pushing the Frontiers of Neurology.”

What’s the current state of brain-mapping research?


Nicolas Spitzer, UC San Diego professor of neurology

Panelist Kris Famm, head of Bioelectronics R&D with the big-pharma firm GlaxoSmithKline, had this observation: “It’s as if we have all the pieces of an airplane laid out before us, but the plane hasn’t taken off yet. …We are now on the verge of tapping into an ability to speak the electrical language of the brain.”

Nicolas Spitzer, Distinguished Professor of Neurology and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, UC San Diego: “What is going on when I have this thought in my brain? We only have the most rudimentary knowledge into those important questions…One of the lessons we learned from the human genome project is that we shouldn’t promise too much too soon. ..But it’s fair to say, in the next 10 to 20 years, we’re going to see the basis of brain functions…There will be new tools to provide ways we cannot yet predict, much like the stem-cell initiative that’s now moving forward.”

Ralph Greenspan, director for UC San Diego’s Center for Brain Activity Mapping: “It’s something that requires a great deal of technical progress before it can be realized. What we need to see is the quick, high-grained activity in the brain. It’s going to be about new sensors, new ways of being able to put together ultimately billions of streams of information. And then having some kind of a theoretical framework to make sense of it.”

On predicting advances: “The most important things in science are not things you can foresee. You simply don’t know where that great idea was going to come from. The most important break-throughs and most profound ideas can come from what you’re not directly studying.”

On using fruit flies as human substitutes in brain study: “For even an animal as small as a mouse or fruit fly, you can’t see inside the brain. But we will, some day. I’m not about to stick electrodes in my head, if I don’t have to. There are many steps we have to go through before that happens.”

In brain terms, exactly how does basic learning occur?

“One of the major benefits (of brain mapping) is to actually to see what happens when we do learn something, especially something that’s very abstract,” said Greenspan. “That is a question that Descartes would’ve loved to have found out.”

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