Fink Thinks: Brains in the news

The decade of the brain is upon us! Or so we’ve said since 1990, and will likely continue to say until we know truly everything about that spongy clump of tissue. Don’t expect that to be soon.

Human brains are the single most complex things we know to exist; each stems from ten billion neurons (brain cells) that flower into a mind with thoughts, memories, and a personality. Because its research potentially holds the keys to both fully understanding ourselves and curing devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, neuroscience is a booming field with innumerable motivated scientists of every discipline from physics to sociology.

At this moment we find ourselves in a decade where our president’s administration is pouring billions of dollars into a “BRAIN initiative” – an attempt to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain. Why? To palliate or even eliminate some of the one thousand disorders of the nervous system that each year impair more than ninety million Americans, cost more than six hundred billion dollars to treat, and hospitalize more people than heart disease or even cancer. The goal of the BRAIN initiative is to reduce these numbers.

Just as new research is pushing forward we also debate the applications and potential of recent research. Can functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans show someone to be innocent or guilty in a trail? How close are we to understanding consciousness? Such questions were addressed at the 2013 World Science Fair, where the brain is becoming a perennial hot topic. We’re in an age of fascinating discoveries, and our interpretations of them will shape everything from law to medicine in the years to come.

Conversely we are in an time where what’s discovered can easily be skewed to bias. Unsound interpretations of neuroscience can carry some echos of pseudoscience and eugenics. Recently, Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain became a hotbed of controversy by claiming a genetic difference between members of political parties. Though Mooney’s book, while dubious, serves as an example of the kind of “pop neuroscience” we must be cautious. Brain research is crucial and riveting, but in an era with new discoveries being made, discussed, and publicized all at the same time, we must make sure we’re able to discern for ourselves what is neurofact and neurofiction.