Dr. Silvia Helena

Decade of the Brain: The End of a Beggining

We are living the final years of the "Decade of the Brain," so proclaimed by President Bush in the US Congress in the beginning of the 90's, to highlight the potential of scientists in making a number of important discoveries related to its function. During this period, American government agencies have committed a high percentage of its budget to the study of the nervous system. On the other hand, research institutions pay less taxes for financing this investigation, while agencies for research funding give high credibility and approval to those researchers proposing to investigate the neural processes that could contribute to the understanding of brain and mind activities, when investigated through scientific methods.

The research in neuroscience have increased in response not only to the interest to understand the normal neuropsychological processes, but also to the need to help those who suffer of neurological disturbances. The need for the continued study of the brain is compelling: millions of people all over the world are affected each year by disorders of the brain, ranging from neurogenetic diseases to degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's, as well as stroke, schizophrenia, autism, impairments of speech, language, hearing, drug abuse, epilepsy and other life-threatening disorders.

To treat such disorders it will be necessary to have a general knowledge of the nervous system, through the understanding of the nervous structures, and the bio-electrochemical mechanisms expressed by the different types of neurons. One must consider how nerve cells work, how they are organized into networks, how they communicate with one another, and how connections between neurons change with experience.

A remarkable advance has already been made. An intriguing correlation have begun to emerge between mental attributes and patterns in nervous impulses. The technological progress in many fields has been contributing to an impressive advance to the study and understanding of the brain's functions.

Neurophysiologists and Neurobiologists, through the use of electrodes, amplifiers, and oscilloscopes, have been measuring the brain's electrical activity and its correlation with mental processes; the electroencephalograph also shows electrical activity in different parts of the brain during different behavioral states, allowing measurement of brain waves from the scalp. Through the study on how brain's cells and chemicals develop, interact, and communicate with the rest of the body, they have also been developing improved treatments for people incapacitated by spinal cord injuries, depressive disorders, and epileptic seizures;

Neuroanatomists have been using sophisticated microscopes and tracing techniques to trace connections in the brain;

Neuropharmacologists are mapping the brain's biochemical circuitry, which may help produce more effective drugs for alleviating the suffering of those who have Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. Research may also prove valuable in the war against drugs, as studies provide greater insight into how people become addicted to drugs and how drugs affect the brain. These studies may also help produce effective treatments for chemical dependency and help us to understand and prevent the harm done to the preborn children of pregnant women who abuse drugs and alcohol. With Microdyalsis, a pharmacological technique which measure the level of substances liberated by the brain tissue during its functioning, it is possible to monitor which neurotransmitter is acting in determined area of the brain, in several types of situations. Findings with these techniques can also help in the treatment of diseases, after all, medicines for the nervous disturbances generally work in the sense of increasing or diminishing the concentration of neurotransmitters;

Molecular neurobiologists explore neurons' gene stock material searching for clues about the structures in the brain's molecules. Breakthroughs in molecular genetics show great promise of yielding methods to treat and prevent diseases such as Huntington's disease and muscular dystrophies. Genetic Engineering, a methodology used to modify the gene sequence and the DNA of living beins in order to produce artificially new characteristic and functions such as proteins, enzimes, growth, etc., has helped in coding genes responsible for the production of certain neurotransmitters, which are deficient in some disorders, such as degenerative diseases;

Behaviorists seek the origin of emotions, learning and memory, thought and conciousness.
Pschiatrists and Psychologists have been carrying out more and more descoverings in means of diagnoses and mental diseases based on new technologies;
Neurosurgeons dedicate all their skills to repair damage to the brain;
Psychoneuroimunologists are trying to understand Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome by studing the connection between the central nervous system and immune systems.

Computer neuroscientists have been creating realistic models in order to simulate the brain. Computer models that simulate the properties of the brain have contributed toward the understanding on how these properties emerge;
Neurologists, using new computer-assisted imaging techniques, are visualizing the structure of the living brain and are applying this knowledge to the several mental and neurological disturbances that affect the humanity.

The decade dedicated to the studies of the brain is almost ending. However, we still have much more to learn. We understand that the development of chemical and electronic techniques that have permitted to explore the brain in minute detail is extraordinary, but it only constitutes the beginning of the understanding on how the neural processes integrate themselves with mental states. The Decade of the Brain is a continuance of many centuries of hard investigation on brain-mind relationship. René Descartes, more than three centuries ago, raised the question that still continues alive at the end of this decade: How does a non-material mind influence the brain and vice-versa?

Silvia Helena Cardoso