Lighting the Way to Better Understanding of the Brain

4/10/13Follow @KarlynBeer

We are enamored by our brains. Arguably the most complex system in the universe that is made up of over 80 billion neurons, the brain is a complex organ that can be a source of marvel and devastation, from human consciousness to neurodegenerative disease. The triumph of overcoming brain disease and injury is captivating: Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s personal story of stroke survival is the second most-watched TED talk of all time.

President Obama’s April 2 announcement launched the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which is starting with $100 million in funding from National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation. With this national-scale neuroscience program, our brains will be the subject of even more fervent discussion.

At the Institute for Systems Biology, where I’m working toward my Ph.D., we think this national attention to neurobiology research comes at a crucial time. Because the brain is so complex, fresh, more comprehensive approaches to research are needed and we believe systems biology is the answer.

How difficult is it to understand the inner workings of the brain? Even after decades of brilliant research, our current understanding is like the illuminated spaces around 100 candles in a pitch-dark auditorium: We know a lot about a few specific processes, but no one knows what the whole room looks like. Systems biology can provide the tools needed to see the whole space.

To illustrate the interrelated layers of biological information that must be coordinated to produce brain function (or malfunction), one can think of the brain as a “system of systems,” within the larger system of the human body.

You recall that for many diseases, gene mutations, deletions and copy number variations can be linked to clinical disease phenotypes.  The complexity lies between the genome and the outward disease phenotypes.

For example, the regulators that switch on and off … Next Page »

Karlyn Beer is a PhD candidate in the Molecular and Cellular Biology program at University of Washington and the Baliga lab at the Institute for Systems Biology. She's on Twitter @KarlynBeer. Follow @KarlynBeer

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  • Gary Folz

    captivating article ,like the style writing on the brain…thank you Karlyn