Decoding the brain

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Decoding the brain

Postby nomo » Thu Nov 10, 2005 4:44 pm

Decoding the brain<br><br><!--EZCODE AUTOLINK START--><a href="http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2005/11/10/big_idea_science_list/index.html">www.salon.com/mwt/feature...index.html</a><!--EZCODE AUTOLINK END--><br><br>By John Horgan<br><br><br><!--EZCODE BOLD START--><strong>The neural code is the most important scientific problem you have (probably) never heard of.</strong><!--EZCODE BOLD END--><br><br>Analogous to the software of a computer, the neural code is the set of rules or the syntax that transforms the electrical pulses emitted by brain cells into perceptions, memories and decisions. Knowledge of the <!--EZCODE LINK START--><a href="http://www.johnhorgan.org/work16.htm">neural code</a><!--EZCODE LINK END--> could give us almost unlimited power over our psyches, because we could monitor and manipulate brain cells with exquisite precision by speaking to them in their own private language. The neural code could also solve one of philosophy's oldest conundrums, the mind-body problem. We may finally understand how this wrinkled lump of jelly in our skulls generates a unique self with a sense of personal identity and autonomy, a self that perceives, emotes, remembers, imagines, chooses, acts, creates.<br><br>Until recently, a complete decoding of the brain seemed impossibly remote, because researchers had limited means of probing the microcircuitry of living brains. Trying to glean the neural code with external scanning methods such as magnetic resonance imaging or electroencephalography is like trying to learn English by standing outside a baseball stadium and listening to the roar of the crowd. But over the past decade researchers have begun crafting arrays of microelectrodes that can eavesdrop on hundreds and even thousands of separate neurons simultaneously. These advances "have really transformed the field," says <!--EZCODE LINK START--><a href="http://www.biology.ucsd.edu/faculty/sejnowski.html">Terry Sejnowski</a><!--EZCODE LINK END-->, of the University of California at San Diego, a leading neural-code theorist.<br><br>The immediate goal of many researchers is producing <!--EZCODE LINK START--><a href="http://www.ninds.nih.gov/funding/research/npp/">"neural prostheses"</a><!--EZCODE LINK END--> for the disabled. By far the most successful neural prosthesis is the <!--EZCODE LINK START--><a href="http://www.sciencenewsdaily.org/story-7875.html">artificial cochlea</a><!--EZCODE LINK END-->, which restores hearing by feeding signals from an external microphone to an implanted chip that stimulates the auditory nerve. Work is proceeding slowly but surely on prostheses that can restore vision to the blind and enable the paralyzed to control computers and other devices. <!--EZCODE BOLD START--><strong>The Pentagon, which funds research on neural prostheses, has openly broached the possibility of implanting chips in healthy soldiers to enhance their perceptions and memories.</strong><!--EZCODE BOLD END--><br><br>Neuroscientists are still far from converging on a solution to the neural code. They are embroiled in debates over whether information is represented primarily by signals from individual neurons, by many neurons firing in lockstep, by even higher-level waves of chaotic electrical activity sweeping through the brain, or all of those schemes and more. These disputes have led some theorists to warn that the neural code may never be fully deciphered. But 60 years ago, many biologists feared the genetic code was too complex to crack. Then in 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson unraveled the structure of DNA, and researchers quickly established that the double helix mediates an astonishingly simple genetic code governing the heredity of all organisms.<br><br>Science's success in deciphering the genetic code, which has culminated in the <!--EZCODE LINK START--><a href="http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml">Human Genome Project</a><!--EZCODE LINK END-->, has been widely acclaimed -- and with good reason, because knowledge of our genetic makeup could enable us to reshape our fundamental nature. A solution to the neural code could, in principle, give us much greater and more direct control over ourselves than mere genetic manipulation. <!--EZCODE BOLD START--><strong>It is not too soon to start pondering the potential consequences of this achievement, especially given the Pentagon's interest. </strong><!--EZCODE BOLD END--><!--EZCODE LINK START--><a href="http://cbcl.mit.edu/cbcl/news/files/defending-darpa.shtml">How will knowledge of the neural code be used</a><!--EZCODE LINK END-->, and by whom? Who will be liberated, and who enslaved? <br><br>--snip <p></p><i></i>
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