The unknowns about the human brain that are left waiting for the next decade.

Researchers say that 2020 will be the decade of neuroscience, thanks to technological innovation that will improve the non-invasive study of the brain.

Unknowns about the human brain.
Unknowns about the human brain.

Neuroscience has made unimaginable progress in the last decade and patients have gained in quality of life with every little finding in the understanding and treatment of brain tumors, migraine, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.

But there is still a long way for scientists to solve the riddles of the 90,000 million neurons that make 100 billion neuronal connections that allow humans to think, remember and get excited like no other living thing on the planet does.

The challenge is so colossal that the state universities of Berkeley, San Francisco and Washington allied in a network of research innovation called Weill Neurohub, which will start its activities thanks to the donation of 106 million dollars from the Weill Family Foundation.

The idea is that neuroscientists join forces with engineers, computer scientists, physicists, chemists and mathematicians to develop the development of therapies for diseases that affect the brain and the central nervous system.

Any breakdown in that biological control tower that regulates our entire lives affects our performance and has a more quantifiable impact than the economy.

According to a study by the Foundation for Information, Technology and Innovation conducted in 2016, ailments such as anxiety, depression, brain and spine injuries, multiple sclerosis cost 1.5 billion dollars annually to the economy in the United States, which represents almost 9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Among the most immediate projects of the alliance are to design and build a high resolution brain scanner that allows a deeper understanding of the structure of the brain, design specific neurotherapies for patients with rare hereditary diseases and eye disorders that cause blindness, non-invasive miniature therapies to treat spinal injuries, applications to detect tiny but potentially fatal strokes.

Human creativity to solve the challenges is as vast as the brain itself. 

And so the members of the Weil Neurohub presage that the decade of 2020 will be the era of neuroscience.

Here we present some of the questions that remained unanswered in the first 20 years of the 21st century and that seek to understand the basic nature of the human being.

How do neurons encode information?

Chemical Synapse.
Chemical Synapse

The functioning of the brain is often compared to that of a computer, to which electrical information arrives that is processed and then released. 

The problem with this analogy is that we know that computers encode information with combinations of zeros and ones known as a binary system but we know little about how neurons encode information.

What we do know is that neurons conduct electrical impulses through a specialized extension called an axon and then release a chemical signal to neighboring neurons at connections called synapses. 

These electrical and chemical signals are what transmit the information of everything we perceive through the senses.

But human behavior is much more complex and we are just beginning to understand how entities such as motivation, curiosity, anxiety and trust are encoded by specific neurons in certain areas of the brain.

The good news is that Professor Adam Kepecs of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory announced important advances in the understanding of neuronal functioning in the most recent publication of Nature, which could influence in the medium term a better treatment of people with psychiatric diseases.

Emotions envelop us

There is not a single day when we do not respond emotionally to the smile of our children, a spectacular accident, an unexpected encounter.

The American psychologist Paul Ekman studied the facial expressions of different cultures in the 1960s and determined that there were six basic emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. 

Then the researcher Robert Plutchik grouped the emotions into 4 pairs of opposites: joy-sadness, anger-fear, confidence-distrust, surprise-anticipation.

What science has failed to elucidate is what happens in the brain when one of those emotions takes control of our behavior. 

Researchers have developed medications to correct emotional imbalances but still do not know for sure what causes emotional outbursts, depressions, delusions.

How do we perceive pain?

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If you feel careless about a needle, surely your instinctive reaction will be to stand up immediately. 

So far we know what happens: pain receptors were activated when the sharp metal penetrated the skin. 

That information traveled through the spinal cord to reach areas of the brain that process pain perception.

But everything seems to indicate that this experience of pain is subjective because it is not experienced with the same intensity by all people. 

There are people who do not blink when receiving an injection, while others scream with intense pain.

Canadian researcher Ronald Melzack suggests that pain signals can be modified while they are in the spinal cord.

That is, they can be amplified, diminished or blocked before entering the brain and that would explain why people injured on the battlefield, playing sports or during a traffic accident feel the pain much later.

Why do we sleep and dream?

It has been 120 years since the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, which postulates that the emotions that are trapped in the subconscious emerge to consciousness in the form of dream images that can be interpreted through psychoanalysis.

Since then, hundreds of scientists have dedicated their lives to studying the neurological and psychological aspects of sleeping and dreaming without having developed a unified theory that explains why we spend a third of our lives sleeping.

The most accepted hypothesis is that sleep has restorative properties and allows the body to recover the energy lost during wakefulness. 

But the intense neuronal activity while we dream indicates that the brain does much more than rest. 

Researchers believe that sleep plays an important role in learning and consolidating memories. 

That would explain why babies and young children spend more than half of the day sleeping.

In adults, more evidence linking sleep disorders with reasoning problems and diseases like dementia in older adults.

Many answers about perception, cognition, learning, emotional control could be revealed if science discovers the secret of dreams.