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Friday, April 12 2013

The brain's task now is to reveal its own secrets

by Nicky Phillips – The Age, April 4, 2013

Over the past two centuries, modern science has charted vast quantities of our solar system and constructed detailed models of the invisible particles that make up the world's matter.

 But when it comes to understanding the human brain, a complex machine comprising 100 billion neurons that make trillions of connections, scientists have no map to guide them.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced his "Brain Initiative", a bold new plan with $100 million initial funding" to conquer the body's most mysterious frontier.

"The brain initiative will give scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think, learn and remember," President Obama said at a White House news conference.

While project details and time frames were scarce, most pundits interpreted the goal would be to create a map of the brain's functional circuitry the highly sophisticated movement of electrochemical signals between neurons and synapses that underpin the body's transfer of information.

By understanding how information in the brain is stored, retrieved and used, scientists will hope to gain insights into brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and autism.

The head of Neuroscience Research Australia, Peter Schofield, believed the project was an ambitious but worthy endeavour, much like the human genome project, which sequenced the building blocks of DNA, and has delivered significant research benefits.

"This will not be wasted effort; it will provide great new insights which will be quickly harnessed for the direct benefit of people and the conditions which afflict them," Professor Schofield said.

Decades of brain research and advances in brain imaging mean neuroscientists can pinpoint regions of the brain that drive basic human function such as speech, emotion, memory and fear.

What they are yet to understand is the finer detail of how each of those connections work and the exact sequence of events when a memory is created or the brain retrieves a phrase for speech, Professor Schofield said.

The human brain is a circuit comprising 100 billion neurons that make trillions of connections. Scientists will attempt to map part of this system.

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