Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how parts of the brain work.
by Leena Prasad
“Why a map, Mom?”
“Well, how do people normally use a map?”
“To get oriented to a place and to use that to find their way around.” Brian thinks for a minute. “So, it’s to understand where neurons are located inside the brain and how they are connected?” He pauses. “But don’t neuroscientists and neurosurgeons already know the locations and the connections?”
“They do but the brain has more than one billion neurons–” his mom says.
“–and several trillion neural connections or roads, you can say. Wait, are the neurotransmitters like roads or like cars? I guess they are like cars.”
His mom smiles. “That’s a close analogy. How do you think they will use the map?”
Brian scratches his chin.
“There are many diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons that we don’t fully understand,” his mom says. “ Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will help them develop tools that can be used to not only map the brain but to understand how the neurons behave. So, it’s not just about creating a more detailed map but it’s also about getting a dynamic view of the stuff that happens in the brain.”
“But, how, how exactly? How will they capture the messages, the path traversed by the neurotransmitters, the messengers of the brain? I mean, that’s not a static thing…”
“Good point. The current studies use fMRI technologies to measure blood flow in specific parts of the brain. This helps them locate the place where neurotransmitters are active.”
“Yes, I know that!”
“Well, the idea of BRAIN is to provide funding to create more sophisticated tools than the fMRI, to see both high-level view of the neurons and their activities and to get a more close-up view—“
“—yeah, I get it.” He says impatiently. “But how is it different than the research already happening?”
“It’s not necessarily different. It’ll build on the existing work and provide additional resources.”
“Ah, so we can learn about the brain faster.”
“Mom, maybe I can get involved with the BRAIN initiative.”
“Yes, it’s a new thing. So, there will be all types of opportunities if the funding continues. But, first if you have to get qualified by studying neuroscience.”
“Maybe I can become a brain surgeon!”
“Sure, but that means you will learn and use what is already known about the brain. You won’t be making new discoveries. So you won’t be part of BRAIN.”
“So, a neuroscientist then?”
“Yes, or both,” his mom says.
“I can be like Oliver Sacks and be a brain-surgeon and a neuroscientist and a neuroscience writer.”
“Yes, you can be. But first, start exercising your brain on the math homework that’s due tomorrow.”
Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.