We’ve all heard the hype. From its pulpit, our modern day messiah, neuroscience, promises to deliver us the untold mysteries of the mind. And perhaps one day it will. But for the thousands of us who are on the edges of our seats in anticipation, a little reality check may be in order.
Enter the lowly roundworm
As with any complex system, if we are to understand how the brain works we must first ground ourselves in a basic understanding of its component parts. And in an ongoing series of studies, neuroscientists have been attempting just that.
By observing the private neurological life of the tiny roundworm (which only has – and you can count them – 302 neurons to its name), researchers have been trying to discover exactly how its neural system works.
For 10 years, Dr. John G White (University of Wisconsin) has used over 20,000 electron-microscopic cross sections of the worm’s anatomy to figure out and reconstruct how its neurons are actually wired. The idea being that if we can understand a more simplistic system, such as the worm’s, and figure out which neurons interact to elicit certain behaviours, we’ll be able to make deductions about how the human brain might work as well. As it turns out, Dr. White has indeed been able to map out how these 302 neurons are connected.
But it wasn’t until Dr. Cori Bargmann came onto the scene, that things got really interesting.
A biologist by trade, she committed herself to the unenviable task of decoding each of the worm’s neurons one by one. And in a career that has already spanned 24 years, her studies have included mutating the worm’s genes in order to figure out why it behaves in certain ways (such as socialising in clumps with other worms).
But even though her work has led to ground-breaking discoveries in the realm of worm neuroanatomy (a testament to her extraordinary rigour and tenacity), we’re still a way off from fully understanding its nervous system, despite its relative simplicity.
A bright future?
That’s why, as we step into the unimaginably vast arena of the human brain and its 100 billion neurons, we may not want to hold our breaths as we embark on the long and difficult journey to understanding how these incredible organs really work.
N. Wade (20th June, 2011). In Tiny Worm, Unlocking Secrets of the Brain. The New York Times.