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The human brain is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery in the biological sciences, and despite decades (centuries, even) of research, we are only scratching the surface. But new high-tech tools and a healthy dose of funding via the Obama administration's BRAIN initiative mean neuroscience and a hundred related fields will be getting the attention they deserve. NBC Learn, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, has documented this big push in its new series, "Mysteries of the Brain."
Despite knowing the pieces that make up the brain (neurons and various support cells) and how they signal each other, we're nowhere near a real theory of how all that fits together to create the experience of being alive and conscious.
"We understand how the neurons work," said the University of Michigan's Orie Shafer in an interview for the series. "But how those cells, an impossible number of those cells, interact to create behavior is a fundamental mystery."
Nevertheless, inroads are being made along various lines of study, many of which are considered in dedicated episodes of "Mysteries of the Brain": wow the brain takes in sensory information, in "Perceiving Brain"; how it creates and regulates feelings, in "Emotional Brain"; and how we are learning to understand its signals, in "Brain-Computer Interface."
All eight episodes, suitable for classroom viewing or your own edification, are available to watch for free at the NBC Learn website.
Meanwhile, even with hundreds of millions in funding from BRAIN and other sources, there's much we don't know yet. In fact, we aren't even sure how much we don't know!
As Gary Lynch, of the University of California, Irvine, puts it in the series: "You have to do the basics. It's the research for its own sake that leads to the discoveries that transform the world."
NBC Learn is hosting a Twitter chat with the National Science Foundation tonight (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. ET about the series. Three of the scientists featured in the videos will be taking questions about brain research. You can follow the chat by keeping tabs on #ExplainTheBrain hashtag.