Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reverse Engineering of the Brain Grows Closer

In a stunning new development, researchers have discovered a revolutionary means of figuring out which of the 100 billion neurons in the brain communicating with each other when people perform various functions, such as learning a new skill.
One of the newest, fastest strategies co-opts a photosensitive protein called channelrhodopsin-2 from pond scum to allow precise laser control of the altered cells on a millisecond timescale. That speed mimics the natural electrical chatterings of the brain, said Dr. Karl Deisseroth, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford.

“We can start to sort of speak the language of the brain using optical excitation,” Dr. Deisseroth said. The brain’s functions “arise from the orchestrated participation of all the different cell types, like in a symphony,” he said.

Laser stimulation can serve as a musical conductor, manipulating the various kinds of neurons in the brain to reveal which important roles they play.

This light-switch technology promises to accelerate scientists’ efforts in mapping which clusters of the brain’s 100 billion neurons warble to each other when a person, for example, recalls a memory or learns a skill. That quest is one of the greatest challenges facing neuroscience.

The channelrhodopsin switch is “really going to blow the lid off the whole analysis of brain function,” said George Augustine, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Understanding the intricate interplay between neurons and how they are structured within an individual's brain is thought to be vital to the ultimate goal of simulating a human brain in a silicon substrate.


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herself said...

That's cool! It sounds like we'll learn as much from this as we did from fMRIs.