Brains on Brains Week 9: Wiring the Brain

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The blog “A Plastic Journey: Introspection of Brains Learning About Brains” delves into the qualia, feelings and thoughts brought forth in the authors’ brains upon learning about the human brain and its functions. The blog will follow loosely the structure of the course “NBE-E4210 – Structure and operation of the human brain.” The blog is written in the form of a fact-filled, loopy and introspective story. [Logo: Oxford University Press (2018).]

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This text was originally published in the Learning Brains blog on November 18: https://blogs.aalto.fi/learningbrains/2018/11/18/wiring-the-brain/

This week’s chapter Wiring the Brain was about how the neurons in our brain are interconnected and how that wiring develops as we mature. First of all it was interesting to learn that both our genes and the childhood environment affect how our brain gets to be later in life. I’m at the age when most of my friends are having kids and it’s great to watch them grow, learn new things and just generally wonder everything about the world. This chapter helped me to connect that development to the process of brain development, and somehow it feels even more fascinating now.

The book has included many fun “boxes of special interest” but this one (with maybe the early box about black widow poison) was especially interesting. Adult neurogenesis was something I wasn’t aware of at all, and it made me wonder if it would be possible int he future to make other parts of the brain to regenerate in the same way as hippocampus? If our hippocampus is basically a new one every year, could this process be duplicated and further developed into some future treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other brain affecting conditions? The later box about CNS axon regeneration in fish and frogs, and the possible future techniques of promoting that regeneration in mammals to help humans to recover from spinal and brain injuries, gave a sort of an answer. It was also a good example of how we just take things as facts of life rather than stop for a moment and wonder why we can in fact get our senses back after a deep cut to a finger, but can’t regenerate our sight.

On a personal level the most memorable part of the chapter was the last one: The fact that plasticity decreases as we mature, and loss of synaptic modification and rewiring of circuitry makes it more difficult to recover from a central nervous system injury. I remember how my relative had a head injury after an accident in his early teens, and how medical personnel explained that the chances of him recovering from it were that good because of the young age. I didn’t really understand the reason back then, but I remember it had something to do with the brain’s ability to rewire itself. This chapter finally explained it. And yes, he recovered.

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Now that the course is almost over (lectures are already), I can conclude that it has definitely been an eye opening experience. I’ve gained a tremendous amount of good insight to themes relating to my research and other studies, and a scientific field where I want to venture much further. With my limited background in natural sciences, chemistry and physics proved to be most difficult for me. I’m sure they can be learned, but it will require going back to basic stuff many times before the exam. On the other hand there were many chapters where I found it easy to come up with real-life examples for the blog texts, and where most of the information made sense without too much struggling.

Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field by nature, and personally I see it also as a bridge between different fields that study what we are. Arts, philosophy, psychology, social sciences and communications all rely on knowledge about human behaviour, but don’t necessarily always take into account the neurophysiology of the brain. Neuroscience can give us a new point of view to almost anything about ourselves, and that’s why I chose this course too. It has been a fun ride, and it’s great that it’s just a start.

Personally I’m eager to see how the research will develop in the future with things like the emergence of artificial intelligence, and how it changes our understanding of intelligence and experience in general. Is there something unique about neurons, or could the same chemical and electrical processes result in similar actions within a manufactured system? Do we need the wetware? I think understanding human brain and things like vision, behaviour and other themes of this course are not going to be relevant only for neuroscientists, psychologists and medical professionals. We need to understand these things to understand ourselves, and only then we are able to solve the biggest problems like environmental catastrophes and the challenges of AI.

 

Posted by Tatu

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