Our knowledge of the human brain is improving even faster than I thought.
Just last month, I told you about five new brain secrets you needed to know. What amazes me is that in just a few weeks, top researchers have announced several major new findings.
Taken together, these latest advances mean we are getting much closer to the day when we will achieve the Holy Grail of neuroscience—complete knowledge of how the brain really works.
That's key because many of our worst diseases target the brain. Of course, I'm talking about dreaded ailments like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But the list also includes inoperable tumors, as well as chemical imbalances that could be a major cause of mood swings and drug addiction.
I spend a lot of time reading about brain research for a very good reason. As I see it, the goal is to have a complete map of this highly complex organ. To do so, we need to know how every single brain cell works.
Some experts even foresee the day when we will reverse-engineer the entire brain. Doing that would allow us to create artificial intelligence systems that would be as smart as humans but less prone to their downsides—like anger, drinking binges, and the effects of stress.
I believe the brain ranks at the top of key breakthroughs that make the Era of Radical Change so exciting. By solving the brain puzzle, we will rid mankind of many cruel diseases while making our physical world smarter and more in tune with the way our minds work.
Here is a look at three new breakthroughs pushing the limits of neuroscience.
Breakthrough No. 1: A Prosthetic Device for Impaired Minds
If you've ever had a hangover, you certainly know what it's like to try and function when your mind is impaired.
No, science doesn't have a cure for that. But in what I think is an amazing find, a team from three U.S. colleges just made a prosthetic device that can correct for bad brain signals brought on by disease or injury.
It's still in the early stages, but this could be big. See, primates tested with the system did well at correcting their decision-making skills after having their brains compromised with cocaine.
To make the system work, the team used what they describe as an "electronic prosthetic system" to tap into the prefrontal cortex of test monkeys. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in judgment and decision making.
After getting the cocaine, the monkeys showed a 13% decline in their thinking ability. But when they were tested with the prosthetic system, the monkeys had judgment that climbed to 10% above normal, even while still under the effects of the drug.
Team leader Robert E. Hampson of Wake Forest University said he foresees the day when this system or something similar could work on people.
"Based on the findings of this study, we hope in the future to develop an implantable neuroprosthesis that could help people recover from cognitive deficiencies due to brain injuries," Hampson added.
Breakthrough No. 2: Scientists Learn How Brain Cells Age
It's taken researchers decades to understand the aging process for brain cells. That's because it seemed that neurons don't have the same ability to divide that other cells do.
Here's the thing. Cell division is a key part of the biology of plants, animals and humans. The process is needed so cells can reproduce and, more to the point, so they can repair any damage they suffer.
Now, for the first time ever, a British team from Newcastle University has found that neurons do, in fact, follow the same pathway as skin cells, which divide to repair wounds.
This discovery calls previous beliefs in this field into question and opens new areas to explore. Team members said it could lead to treatments for such conditions as dementia and Lou Gehrig's disease (which affects motor neurons), as well as age-related hearing loss.
To pull off the feat, the team worked with a special colony of aged mice. They found that aging in the neurons in the brains of these rodents follow the exact same rules as skin and other cells.
"We will now need to find out whether the same mechanisms we detected in mouse brains are also associated with brain aging and cognitive loss in humans," said team leader Thomas von Zglinicki. "We might have opened up a shortcut towards understanding brain aging."
Breakthrough No. 3: How Stress Blocks Short-Term Memory
For years, experts have known that stress robs people of their ability to focus and to think clearly about the task at hand. Now, scientists think they know why.
Turns out stress blocks the ability of brain cells in your prefrontal cortex to fire properly. The prefrontal cortex is vital for short-term memory. Without it, you'd forget where you were going before you even pulled your car out of the driveway.
David Devilbiss, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, explains that neurons in the prefrontal cortex help store information for very short periods. He likens them to items on a chalkboard that can be written, erased and rewritten over and over again. Apply stress, and the neurons become too distracted to retain information.
Devilbiss notes that in the past, scientists thought stress suppressed the function of the prefrontal cortex. But in reality, he says, it changes the nature of how the neurons work.
"Even though these neurons communicate on a scale of every thousandth of a second, they know what they did one second to one-and-a-half seconds ago," Devilbiss said. "But if the neuron doesn't stimulate itself again within a little more than a second, it's lost that information."
Let me close by noting I had no shortage of new advances about the brain to comb through. Breakthroughs are coming so fast that not even experts in the field can keep up with it all.
That says a lot about the Era of Radical Change. Every day seems to bring yet another finding that will have a huge impact on the health of the whole human race.
Because once we have the brain figured out, there'll be no stopping us.
Era of Radical Change