Scientists unraveling the mysteries of consciousness
By Dick Pelletier
What is consciousness? Although it's difficult for scientists to agree on a definition of this unique human trait, for this article, we will assume the following: Consciousness refers to individual awareness of thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and environment.
In one moment, you may be focused on reading this article; your memory could then shift to a conversation you had earlier. Next, you might notice how uncomfortable your chair is or maybe you are mentally planning dinner. This ever-shifting stream of thoughts changes dramatically from moment to moment, but your experience of it seems smooth and effortless.
Many neuroscientists, philosophers and journalists feel the time is near when we will be able to explain the mysteries of human consciousness in terms of brain activity.
With the human genome sequenced and stem cell therapies and genetic engineering advancing, scientists believe it's time to begin research on exactly what it means to be human. This is the conclusion of experts at the National Institutes of Health as they launch the "Human Connectome Project," an aggressive effort to unravel the brain's connections.
The HCP is truly a grand challenge to map the wiring diagram of the human brain. Identifying circuits and linking them to health and disease offers a great opportunity, says Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Mapping the millions of miles of neuron connections in the brain could help researchers understand how neurons give rise to intelligence, personality and memory, says MIT professor Sebastian Seung, who has created tools that allow researchers to understand these connections.
Piecing together connections requires analyzing vast numbers of microscopic images of brain slices and tracing the tangled connections as each neuron sends electrical signals out to a myriad of other neurons, which create our emotions, thoughts, and physical activities.
In a different approach, European scientists have developed a silicon chip designed to function like a human brain. With 200,000 neurons linked by 50 million synaptic connections, the chip is able to mimic the brain's learning abilities.
Although this chip has only a fraction of the number of neurons found in a human brain, its design allows it to be scaled up, says Heidelberg University physicist Karlheinz Meier. The hope is that recreating the brain in computer form will provide a better understanding of the biological brain. The current prototype operates 100,000 times faster than a human brain. "We can simulate a day in one second," says Karlheinz.
This is not the first attempt to recreate the brain in silicon. The "Blue Brain" project in Switzerland is creating a realistic simulation on an IBM supercomputer. Also, Stanford University and the Defense Department are funding similar projects.
In addition to understanding consciousness, "computer-brain" simulations will help researchers determine the body's reaction to new drugs, shortening time spent in human trials. It could also provide valuable data on connecting human brains with tomorrow's intelligent machines.
Experts believe scientists will understand consciousness by 2025, which could help civilization become a peaceful global-village more intent on solving economical and environmental issues, than arguing over religious and ethnic interests. Will unraveling the mysteries of consciousness have this positive impact on society? Positive futurists predict it will.
This piece, written 02/02/2010 will appear in various print media and blogs; comments welcome. See other articles by Dick at http://www.positivefuturist.com; click the "published work" tab.