Some time ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Daniel Amen — author, brain-disorder specialist, and psychiatrist who founded Amen Clinics — who reminded me that the brain is perhaps the only organ that specialists almost never have physical contact with, let alone that they see.
“Psychiatrists are really the only practitioners who never look at the organ they treat,” he told me, “and because of that, they hurt people.”
When his 9-year-old nephew Andrew began acting out strangely, drawing pictures of shooting his classmates, Amen decided to do a brain scan — something that 999 out of 1,000 psychiatrists would likely never have done. The scans showed that Andrew suffered from a temporal lobe cyst. After it was drained, Andrew’s behavior returned to normal and to this day he continues to lead a happy and productive life.
Some may not agree with Amen’s methods, but they would have little trouble accepting that all too often psychiatry consists of making a diagnosis from just a cluster of symptoms, without having the chance to actually look inside the head of the patient — to chart brain activity as it unfolds.
Perhaps in the next 50 years, riding on the coattails of some of the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience, the next great frontier won’t be outer space — but rather the space between our ears. Perhaps by fully understanding the brain, we will finally understand much of our existence, and with it, the problems that humanity has faced collectively since its beginning — the rifts and personality differences that all too often lead us to conflict.
A MODEL BRAIN
So where do we begin? While great strides have been made in functional MRI technology over the last two decades, having constant access to the equipment is something of a tall order, as would be the question of how accurately these technologies reflect brain activity that happens when such equipment is not present. Several summers ago, I had the misfortune of a three-day hospital stay; I was bedridden in my room, unable to shower, and hooked up to an electroencephalogram for tests. It was as depressing for me as it sounds — and I was somewhat surprised (and relieved) when the report came back with no irregularities.
We’ve also made considerable advances in what we know about the functioning of various regions in the brain since the days of Paul Broca, but still have a great deal to learn about how specialized these regions actually are; how these finer points crosstalk with neurons. There is still much to learn about how neurons and axons mesh together — an understanding of the brain at its most basic elements and how these connections continue to form over an individual’s lifetime.
The obvious first step would seem to build a perfected model brain — one that captures all the nuances of an active brain that you can’t ascertain from dissection alone. Perhaps this does not seem like much of a challenge at all. Modern science is already capable of noninvasive procedures in nuclear medicine — using rubidium to see a patient’s functioning heart, for example. However, the brain’s complexity poses a few problems for designers.
To get a precise view inside the brain’s interior has already proven to be a challenge. The brain’s gray matter is neither flat nor transparent. The lipids or fatty molecules that make up so much of it cause any light emitted by imaging devices to scatter — so the activity that we do see is severely limited to scratching the surface. More importantly, this is the area that researchers need to keep intact the most because it acts primarily as an insulator for the brain’s ions — sending electrical impulses back and forth throughout the brain, these being the messages we rely on for heartbeats.