Inner Universe: The Deep Complexity of the Brain


There I was, sitting in a lecture theater staring dumbstruck at the wonderfully complex and beautiful picture projected onto the screen at the front of the room. The year was 1998. The lecturer was enthusiastically describing what we were looking at: thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars.

The scale of the observation seemed crazy. Astronomers had commanded the Hubble Space Telescope to stare at a tiny patch of the cosmos only one degree wide in the constellation of Ursa Major — that appeared to be empty — just to see what was there. The Hubble Deep Field (HDF) observation was famous in the 1990s and has since been trumped by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF) and the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF). To my first year astronomy lecturer, the HDF seemed the perfect place to begin describing the vast scales and incredible complexity of the Universe to a group of fresh-faced undergraduates.

That feeling of awe and fascination hit me again in a place that, before Friday, would have seemed unlikely.

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So, there I was, sitting in the Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus in Pasadena, Calif., attending the TEDx Caltech “The Brain” event on Friday. Jeff Lichtman, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, was discussing the “wiring” of the brain on a molecular scale. His team had constructed a wonderful model from data of a tiny portion of a human brain. In an effort to understand how the individual microscopic components are connected (a field of study he refers to as “connectomics”), he conveyed the complexity of the machine that gives us thoughts, emotions, memories and consciousness. That model only consisted of a sand grain-sized volume of simulated brain matter and it was enough data to fill my computer’s hard drive a hundred times over. A grain of sand… over a hundred terabytes of data!

That same feeling of awe came over me once again. And that feeling hit me again, again and again throughout an incredible TEDx conference in sunny Pasadena.

TEDx events are independently-organized TED conferences that are open to the public — fortunately at a much lower cost than traditional TED events. “The Brain” flawlessly hosted by the Caltech organizers invited two dozen speakers to discuss the cutting-edge of brain research. Talks included everything from the very fine detail of the synapses to the big question as to how our perception of the world around us evolved.

Neurosurgeons enlightened us on how their work on electrical stimulation on specific parts of the brain have led to novel treatments for Parkinson’s disease, perhaps opening a promising field of Alzheimer’s disease therapy. Even parts of the brain that dictate obesity can be targeted.

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The idea that specific brain disorders (not behavioral disorders as pointed out by Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health) can be treated by popping a pill was dispelled, emphasizing the need for delivering specific drugs to specific parts of the brain. The analogy of pouring oil all over the engine block of your car was used to describe the pill-popping culture of mental health treatments; some of the oil (drug) may drip into the right spot, but most of it will burn off over the rest of the engine (brain), creating nasty side effects for the functionality of your car (physiology).

Caltech undergraduate and postgraduate students also gave talks on a multitude of subjects. The topics they communicated — from how bird brains communicate to how the bacteria in your gut could have a significant impact on disorders normally associated with the brain, such as autism and depression — were, frankly, mind blowing.

Each talk seemed to pull back the curtain on the misconceptions of brain science and the medical applications of common (and not-so-common) treatments. There were also emotional moments when neurosurgeons showcased patients they have helped through novel brain therapies, helping them walk and see once again.

And then there’s the outstanding research on fruit flies. Who knew you could make the insect ‘angry’! Or give it ADHD! Or see what happens when you mess with the fly’s dopamine! (Yes, fruit flies on cocaine were even discussed in a terribly entertaining talk by Michael Dickinson of the University of Washington.) Several discussions on animal behavior and how it relates to the human mind left me wanting to go back to university to take a course on neuroscience, zoology or both.

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I’m no biologist and, as I realized as the day went on, I have very little clue about how the brain works. But I kept getting that feeling when I saw Hubble’s HDF observation for the first time, realizing that our brains allow us to comprehend such incredible ideas, and yet we’re only just beginning to comprehend the beautiful complexity of the microscopic universe within our minds. The final frontier may not end at the ancient cosmic microwave background radiation, it may actually reside inside our skulls.

“It’s been said that if the brain were simple enough to understand, we would be too simple to understand it,” Doris Tsao, assistant professor of biology and computation and neural systems at Caltech, said during her afternoon talk. A sentiment I couldn’t agree more with.

For more on the Caltech TEDx “The Brain,” browse the event website.

Browse the TEDx speakers and their research.

Image: The Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus, Pasadena, Calif. Credit: Ian O’Neill for Discovery News

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