The Machinery of the Mind: What’s Ahead in Brain Research

By Futurist Kit Worzel

One of humanity’s final frontiers of research is the human brain. Dimitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire, is keeping abreast of research as part of his Immortality 2045 project, which has the end goal of uploading his human consciousness to a computerized brain, and living forever in an artificial body. I wish him luck, for he’ll need every bit of time available to attain his goal. 

The human brain is tremendously complex, the most complex object we know of in the known universe, and we are only beginning to understand some of its underlying mechanisms. Without a complete understanding of the brain, we will never be able to replicate it, or make it possible to upload its contents. Let me explore some of the areas of research currently underway.

Let’s start by discussing Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research is finding triggers for Alzheimer’s, as well as autism, and even senility, and beginning to develop treatments for them. But there is still a tremendous amount of information we don’t have, and the fact that the brain does not rely on one system makes it even harder. I’ll give three examples of Alzheimer’s research, each promising, each examining a different pathway.
    Dr. H. C. Baron of the University of Oxford neurology department studies the electrical activity of the brain. He and his team have found an electrical basis for forgetting, involving cortical excitation and inhibition. A memory can be suppressed by the expression of electrical activity that is the opposite of the forming of the original memory. The memory is suppressed, not erased, and they have shown that removing the inhibition can recover the memory, which can explain why sometimes long forgotten memories float up out of no-where. It is believed that memory suppression has a role in ordering thought processes, otherwise our minds could be firing wildly, unable to cope with unordered memories. It is hoped that further research into electrical memory suppression can help prevent and even reverse the damage done by Alzheimer’s disease.
    North of Oxford, Dr. Oliver Hardt and his team at the University of Edinburgh have been studying chemical receptors tied to memory and memory loss. These receptors, called AMPA receptors, are shown to be in abundance between cells where there are strong memories, and greatly reduced, or even absent where memories are lost. Dr. Hardt’s team has also found that actively forgetting is important in behavioral adaptations, much like Dr. Baron’s team did. Their research suggests that drugs that target AMPA receptor removal could be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but also that there could be consequences to blocking AMPA removal, including possibly the inability to form new memories.
    Across the Pond, at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Beth Stevens and her team study synapse loss, and the relationship to Alzheimer’s disease. Synapses are brain connections, normally associated with the formation of memories. In a normal, healthy brain, synaptic pruning is an ongoing process, removing weak or damaged synapses. This process occurs most vigorously during puberty, and is associated with learning. However, in some neurodegenerative diseases, this pruning runs out of control, removing healthy connections as well as degenerate ones. Dr. Stevens’ team discovered that in a rodent model of Alzheimer’s, there was a high level of synaptic loss in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for learning and memory. This occurred before the formation of amyloid plaques, a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease. By exploring the pathways related to neural pruning, they hope to find methods of repressing pruning, and hopefully, means of treating neurodegenerative diseases.
These represent three different approaches to Alzheimer’s treatment – electrical, chemical and physical, and all are promising. But they also show that the brain is incredibly complex; after all if there are three different methods of treatment, and they all involve attacking memory loss, then memory formation has to account for all three factors as well. As well, all of the pathways discovered by these research teams are ones that relate to the regulation of memory, and therefore involved in making sure the brain is working properly. As a result, we can’t just remove one of these regulators without causing things to go haywire.

    Next, let’s take another look at Immortality 2045, the ultimate goal of which is to upload a brain into a computer. This would involve highly sophisticated computers, which, according to Moore’s law, we should have by then. It will also likely involve nanotechnology, and possibly even technology we have yet to conceive. But most importantly, it will involve learning enough about the science of the brain to completely understand its functioning, and build systems that can replicate each functional pathway, electrical, chemical and physical, either with software or hardware. 
    Do I think that we’ll be able to walk around in thirty years with electronic brains? I don’t know, but it seems unlikely to me. But then, it didn’t seem likely in 1985 that we’d be walking around with supercomputers in our pockets. Or that we’d use them to look at cat pictures. 
    With this in mind, I’m going to suggest a timeline of what the future milestones of brain research might be. 

2016 (present day) – We continue to gather information on how brains work and various brain diseases, using models and clinical trials. There are some drugs and treatments that show promise, but they all require more study before being used in human trials.

2020 – The first truly effective treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease are approved. These won’t allow us to reverse damage already done, but will put a permanent hold on the progression of these diseases. With early screening, and using treatments prophylactically on those with beginning stages or high risk, the nasty consequences and progression of these diseases may be halted.

2025 – Researchers have developed a computerized model of the brain, with every known pathway and regulatory system included. It fails to behave like a human within a week, prompting a return to the drawing board, and an acknowledgement that the brain is still more complex than we imagined. In other news, a treatment to cure and reverse the damage from neurodegenerative diseases is approved, though the cost will keep it from widespread use for several years. Luckily, due to earlier treatments arresting progression, people inflicted with such diseases will have those years to wait.

2030 – The development and successful implementation of a cybernetic occipital lobe, which is primarily responsible for vision, takes the world by storm. There are issues for the first few years, but vision is restored in those who were born sighted but lost their vision one, even if the treatment necessitates a port in the skull for updates and modifications. An updated computerized model of the brain is released, and runs successfully for three months before exhibiting psychotic behavior, achieving a major milestone, but still falling short of the brain’s complexity.

2035 – A patient suffering from head trauma and a partial encephalectomy receives the first cybernetic parietal lobe, which integrates sensory inputs for the brain. This is less of a resounding success, but still restores a degree of recognition and voluntary movement to the recipients. Unfortunately, it is not enough to allow the recipient to live unassisted, but further updates are expected to fix the major issues inside of two years. The computerized model of the brain has successfully been running for a year now, with no signs of abnormal or aberrant psychology, raising hopes that humanity has reached a decent level of understanding of the brain.

Beyond 2035 is very hard to see. The progress by then will depend upon as-of-yet undreamt of technologies closing a gap between mind and the brain’s machinery. Can we identify, codify, and store a thought? Can we say definitively that the brain and the mind are the same, or that they are different? Could nanotechnology create a bridge from our minds to computers, allowing a full interface even while using our original, organic brains? Or perhaps we’ll be able to copy our mental engrams and personalities like we do MP3 files now, in order to transfer them to a non-organic home. These are questions for which we don’t even have hazy notions today. Whether we will be able to formulate answers within a mere 20 years is an incredibly ambitious goal.

It’s possible that Dimitry Itskov is right, and we’ll be able to upload our brains into computers and live forever. It seems more likely to me that our brains are far more complex than even the best neuroscientists imagine, and our minds will have to stay where they are, inside our organic brains, at least for the next 20 years and for some time beyond. But until then, we can look forward to having healthier brains for longer, at the very least.