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Can we build ourselves a better brain?


An exciting and engaging new article has recently been published in Cell’s Voices feature: Building a Better Brain. In the opinion piece, some of the world’s top neuroscientists, including the CDN’s Professor Beatriz Rico, consider potential avenues that could lead to us developing the capabilities to build sharper, bigger and better brains for ourselves.

Edward Boyden (MIT), opens the discussion and asks ‘if we knew enough about the mechanisms our brains’ networks operate by, would we able to engineer them? Could we incorporate computer algorithms in our brains as in-brain ‘wetware’? Su Guo (UCSF) takes a different perspective and cites the wealth of knowledge we have already got from organisms such as the zebrafish. Could this model organism be similarly exploited to teach us how we may be able to and improve our memories, for example? Rüdiger Klein’s (Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology) approach also points to the value of animal model systems. With the advent of single-cell RNA sequencing, Rüdiger discusses how we may soon be able to generate neomorphic, or artificial, circuits from which we can observe and then predict the behavioural effects of modification. Once we can do this, how quickly could we then engineer new functional connections in the brain? Vanessa Ruta’s (The Rockefeller University) focus is different and looks to the past. Upgrading our brains is akin to a form of super-evolution. Why not then look to the evolution of our brains to understand how they have incrementally evolved and improved?

In the piece by Beatriz Rico, her thoughts are focused on harnessing our understanding of and ability to manipulate circuits. We are seeing more and more how the complexities of behaviour rely on the meticulous assembly and fine-tuning of neural circuits. At the same time, we are mastering tools such as shRNA and CRISPR/Cas9 to engineer aspects of circuitry. Will it soon be possible to treat human brain disorders with our knowledge and abilities to manipulate circuits? If so, would it affect us in any other ways? Beatriz further proposes another possible route to being able to upgrade our brains: bridging specific synapses. We’re getting increasingly close to being able to build bridges on specific synapses and could possibly increase the synaptic strength and/or density. Could this lead to better cognitive abilities? Whilst this area is controversial as Beatriz acknowledges, she tells us this could well be a possibility in just a few decades.