Frontiers of Neuroscience: Charting the Complexities of Our Brains

What is the source of our individuality? What does it mean to be a person? What is the essence of being me? Technological advances in neuroscience have provided insight into the nature of our brains and have given us the ability to begin mapping the connections between neurons. Results from monitoring neuronal activity indicate that our brains have tremendous plasticity not only at a young age but also throughout adult life. In this film, Drs. Huda Zoghbi and William Newsome expand upon these new discoveries by exploring identity, the complexity of treating neurological diseases, and the need for a comprehensive theory of brain processes, which involves the use of a multidisciplinary scientific approach to neuroscience research.

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Dr. William Newsome is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Newsome was appointed to lead the Obama administration’s BRAIN initiative to map the brain’s 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections.

Dr. Huda Zoghbi is a professor in the departments of pediatrics, molecular and human genetics, and neurology and neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital.


Dr. Huda Zoghbi: I am always mystified by the brain. One of the biggest surprises of my career has been how plastic the brain is. The way brain cells die when you’re suffering from a degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s or like Parkinson’s, it’s not like the cells die tomorrow. They really go through being slightly sick, a little bit more sick, and sicker and sicker with time. Finally, the cells disappear and die, but this patient’s symptoms appear when the cells begin to be very slightly sick. What we’ve learned is that period of slightly sick cells, before it goes into the final degeneration, that long period is reversible. So to me, that tells us about the plasticity of the brain, not only in early life, but even in adult life. We’re beginning to scratch the surface in understanding the brain, and there’s a lot to be learned.

Dr. William Newsome: What we are realizing in neuroscience right now is that the pace of change is just accelerating tremendously. We have had new techniques come online in the past 10 years, several of them that have only been the stuff of science fiction in the past. One is our ability to get just a map of the connections of the brain, the basic wiring, what neurons are connected to other neurons. Another is to measure the signals that flow within that map. You really need to measure the electrical signals in order to understand it. The third is to be able to go inside that circuit and then manipulate it at will. To manipulate activity in circuit A and leave circuits B, C, and D alone and see how manipulations affect the other circuits and affect behavior, for example. When you start to understand those mechanisms, you also start to understand what can go wrong in those mechanisms to create disordered states.

Dr. Huda Zoghbi: When something goes wrong in a patient, then part of the brain is not functioning well. The symptoms of these disorders are like no other, and from that, I can learn so much about the brain from that, at the molecular level, at the gene level. I’ll give you one example. Rett syndrome is a genetic disease. Because it happens after birth, because it happens after the framework of brain networks is laid down well, if we can bring it back, we can correct what I call the software of the brain, the synapse connections and functionality of synapses. We go from understanding the root cause, which is the gene moving up to seeing all the changes within a cell, down to how the brain network is altered, what kind of behavior starts from that. The diversity of brain cells is far more complex than we ever imagined. The new technology that we’ve developed to label different neuronal subtypes, to capture them, to find what they do, was really surprising.

Dr. William Newsome: The thing that we really need is comprehensive theory of brain processes and how it works. One danger, a failure mode of neuroscience could be that we get to the end of the next decade, for example, and we’ve got computers full of data that we’ve obtained with these powerful new techniques and we don’t actually understand what those data mean. So, we need statisticians, mathematicians, applied physicists, engineers coming into the field, and it’s only through that kind of multi-disciplinary interaction that we’re going to go forward and really take advantage of the technology.

  • Course Categories: Ethics, General Theology, Pastoral Theology
  • Science Topics: Neuroscience, Brain, & Mind
  • Tags:
    neuroscience, science and religion, Dr. William Newsome, Dr. Huda Zoghbi, Frontiers of Neuroscience, brain circuitry, brain cells

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