Aug 27, 2018, 05:56AM

The Secret Brain

What’s on your mind?

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Considered your memory of late? Of course you have, unconsciously. Located in the frontal region of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is where our short-term memory resides. Understanding how the brain works is one key to survival. I’m not a scientist, but find it captivating hearing about brain and mind research.

Cures start somewhere. There’s a long history of scientific breakthroughs at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Once voted California’s most beautiful building, this ultra-modern research center was designed by architect Louis Kahn. In this setting neuroscientists are studying split-second mind changes.

Xin Jin, an associate professor of the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, is researching diseases that involve the brain selecting an action. Jin utilizes an assortment of methods with respect to the brain’s learning and choice process.

According to Salk Institute: “His lab has used cutting-edge molecular tools to dissect how the different cell types in the downstream brain regions work together with dopamine for control of actions.” The hope is this kind of work will provide insight and possible cures in the treatment of Parkinson’s, drug addiction and other forms of neurodegenerative diseases. They’ve already partially restored vision in blind animals.

Brains create our reality. Consider how your memory recalls facts and feelings. You trust those experiences. What if an event never happened but you just have a feeling it occurred? The mind can play tricks.

David Crosby talks about life’s ghosts when he sang, “If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do. Don’t you?” That classic 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording was called “Déjà Vu”: named after the “already seen” word of French origin. One has familiarity with a sense of oldness, coupled with a sense of newness, often followed by a feeling of premonition. Aside from a person visiting a past life or someone having a seizure, such an elusive phenomenon is certainly difficult to reproduce in a lab, until recently.

Scientists are using a gene editing technique you may have heard about called CRISPR. How dopamine effects the brain’s decision-making process is vital to the research work. Dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter that allows our brains derive pleasure from activities such as gambling, sex, and addictions. Now science has found a way to give CRISPR cells marching orders in animals.

The following Salk example describes the nervous system at work like a battleship’s chain of command: “Say you’re reaching for the fruit cup at a buffet, at the last second you switch gears and grab a cupcake instead. Emotionally, your decision is a complex stew of guilt and mouth-watering anticipation. But physically it’s a simple shift: instead of moving left, your hand went right.” Your brain organized that behavior.

Another research technique being explored is called optogenetics; light beams are used to manipulate the dopamine levels of an animal’s brain in real time. Scientists have experimented on genetically engineered mice with neurons that can trigger “catch and kill” behavior.

What’s more shocking is how pharmaceutical companies are pouring billions of dollars into research trying to come up with a memory pill. In biotech headquarters worldwide, teams of investors are eagerly waiting results. Will new target drugs make saying, “fuhgeddaboudit” a thing of the past? Our search for lost memories could become commonplace, like the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It’s a chilling thought. Due to our current social and political climate, any healthy brain decision-making is already complicated. Given such a vast volume of misinformation it’s hard to find full disclosure.

After your panic attack, a note of caution: our present medical systems are currently being revised for rebuilding our most precious resource, the brain. There’s something simple to remember, (no pun intended) there’s always a distinct possibility of complications. When you go in and start snipping away at DNA, edited cells can go rogue, possibly cause mutations with unknown immune system responses.

The not-so-far future of humanity is a “now” reality. Despite moral and ethical concerns, some tech trendsetters have moved forward with high-end applications that seem tone-deaf. Just the other day I read about a company implanting microchips in their employees’ skin—the main reason: making it easier to unlock doors. Should everyone freak out, like the late Frank Zappa said, “Who are the brain police?”  


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