Science Beyond the SciLi: Professor John Davenport on the State of Neuroscience

It can seem like the field of science is limited to torturous problem sets in the SciLi dungeon basement. But there is  awesome stuff going on in the sciences at Brown and beyond, though it can be difficult to find when you’re wasting away in the library. BlogDH presents “Science Beyond the SciLi,” so even if you’re reading this inside those concrete walls, you can see a glimmer of scientific hope.

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On Thursday night, a packed audience gathered in the back of Flatbread Company to listen to neuroscientist R. John Davenport speak on “Wiring Connections in Brain Science.” The talk was hosted by Science Underground and powered by free Flatbread pizza, which is the ultimate brain food, as everyone knows. Davenport, an adjunct professor of Neuroscience and the associate director of Brown Institute for Brain Science, gave an overview of the current state of neuroscience and where the field is going.

Fun fact: The brain is made of 100 billion neurons. That’s as many stars as there are in the Milky Way galaxy. Each neuron makes a thousand connections with other neurons, so basically a neuron would be killing the LinkedIn game. But these connections are way more important than your endorsement-seeking acquaintances: they make up the brain functions that allow you to do everything from reading a map to playing chess. Neuroscientists are working on mapping all of these connections in what they call the “connectome,” the equivalent of the Human Genome Project for neural connections, so it’s a pretty big deal.

If we can understand how a brain performs these crazy complicated functions, it will allow us to replicate them on machines. We already have a computer that beat the human chess champion, but we’re still on our way to finding one that reads maps. If you think about it, this is much more complicated than it seems (besides the fact that I have a sense of direction worse than a freshman trying to find Smitty B in a hurricane). We are able to adapt to the format of a map and figure out where we are, which is actually pretty damn impressive, but we are still trying to figure out how our brains perform this skill and how we can teach it to computers.

Neuroscience’s realm expands much further than technological advances, however. Davenport describes the field’s holistic approach: it aims to understand the neural basis of everything. Growing subfields include neuroeconomics, how music affects the brain, neural disease treatment, and games that improve brain function. Basically, add the prefix “neuro” to any Brown concentration, and you’ve found another area of neuroscience research.

In particular, neuroscience aims to make headway in the fight against devastating brain diseases and injuries. Some stats for you: 800,000 Americans per year suffer from a stroke, 1 in 88 children are on the Autism spectrum, and 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s at a cost of $203 billion per year. The new frontier of brain disease research focuses on “human neuroscience,” which looks at diseases at the genetic level. Hundreds of genes in the human brain have been cataloged, and it was found that many brain diseases have genetic similarities. Researchers have started using “induced pluripotent stem cells” to create cellular models of human disease, which they hope will allow them to understand how healthy brain cells differ from diseased ones.

Brown is one of the leaders in assistive technology for people with neural diseases. The BrainGate project, spearheaded by Professor John Donoghue, is something out of Phil of the Future. It hooks up a patient’s brain to a robotic arm, and when the patient thinks about moving his or her arm, the robot moves. A woman with paralysis who hadn’t been able to feed herself for 15 years was able to serve herself coffee with the use of the BrainGate technology. The team hopes to further develop this technology to make it implantable and completely wireless (now that we got rid of Brown-Secure, how hard could this be?), so that, for instance, patients with epilepsy could be constantly monitored and treated for seizure activity.

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Making mice walk on cue. #Science, bitches.

The last super-cool topic Davenport described was optogenetics, the ability to use light to turn neurons on and off. Researchers stuck light-responsive proteins into the neurons of mice that control motor function, which makes the neurons turn on only upon exposure to light. When you shine a light, the mouse walks; when you turn the light off, it stops. Neuroscientists are also working on using bioluminescence to make active cells light up, so we can monitor neural activity. The potential for this optogenetic technology is endless.

As for where the field of neuroscience is headed, Davenport noted integration and scale. The overarching goal is to understand how we interact with our surroundings and how we could better connect to the world.

We hope you are brainspired, and stay tuned for more Science Beyond the SciLi!

Image via and via Gabby Manoff ’16.

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