Tuesday, September 28

On the brain, an approved scraping

There is only one known thing that it tries to explain itself: the human brain. But it is not being easy for him, despite dedicating more and more resources to it. In fact, there are two big billion-dollar projects underway around the brain. One is the European project “Human Brain Project” and the other the American initiative BRAIN (brain in Spanish), acronym in English for: Brain research through the advancement of innovative neurotechnologies. Its promoter and director for years has been the Spanish neurobiologist Rafael Yuste, professor and researcher at the New York University of Columbia.

The BRAIN initiative was announced by Barack Obama on April 2, 2013. It was born with the aim of building a detailed map of the activity of each neuron in the human brain. From a hypothetical human brain, we should say, since no two are alike. Even your brain is not exactly the same now as it was when you started reading this article. With brains it is the same as with rivers, you will never see them the same as only a few seconds before.

Almost a decade after their inception, both projects have brought great achievements in understanding the brain and inspired advances in computing. However, barely two years after reaching a decade of life, the period initially planned for its completion, the results are far from meeting the planned objectives and much more from unraveling most of the secrets of our thinking machine.

Yuste stated in 2015 that on a scale of 1 to 10, the existing knowledge about the brain could be between 3 and 4, and that he would be satisfied if the BRAIN initiative managed to explain what a thought is. Last June I asked him if we had advanced since then and to what extent, and he replied that we are approaching 5. I mean, a thumbs up. Of course, by the hair and those that are sometimes achieved by scratching a few tenths from here and there, but without any of the most important questions having been well resolved, so whoever qualifies is left with that bitter feeling that the student is still green.

Regarding thought, Yuste said that there is already some idea of ​​what it is in substance. Unraveling the essence of what a thought is is still a fundamental, gigantic challenge, but the physical basis, he said, could be in a group of neurons that keep feeding each other. That is, activating each other.

Thought and memory are indissoluble. Santiago Ramón y Cajal postulated that the substrate of memory could be in the modifications of the synaptic connectivity between neurons. Decades later, in 1945, Donald Hebb formally established it, and he did so based precisely on the “reverberating circuits” proposed in the 1930s by another Spaniard, Lorente de Nó. According to this, certain sets of neurons can reproduce patterns of neuronal activity that arise from our experience, and do so from stimuli associated with information related to what gave rise to a memory, and this can even be evoked in the absence of external stimuli.

Rafael Lorente de Nó was born in Zaragoza in 1902. He initially worked in the Cajal laboratory in Madrid, but later made a tour of different European countries, until he reached the United States at the hands of the Board for the Expansion of Studies (JAE) . The JAE, created in 1907 and chaired by Cajal himself until his death in 1934, was an institution that did exceptional work for Spanish science in the first third of the last century, although not infrequently helping our citizens to go abroad. most promising researchers. Outside they had the means to investigate that there were none here. Does it sound like something?

As for Cajal, the indisputable historical reference of world neuroscience, he was not simply an oasis in the desert, but the entire paradise. Spain has not given birth like him anymore. It cannot be otherwise, as ours is a country that supports its Quixotes a lot, even when they ardently defend inconsequential or outdated causes, but little to their Cajales.

The National Artificial Intelligence Strategy contemplates the creation of national multidisciplinary technological development centers, focusing on neurotechnologies. I hope that in this and other areas we will be able to give our best scientists what they need to avoid having to leave and deliver to others the fruits that could have ripened here.


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