Festival of Ideas
9:44 am
Fri March 7, 2014

Researcher Gives Some Insight Into How the Brain Works

We all have one- but there's a lot of mystery behind how it works- the brain, that is.

People who attended West Virginia University's Festival of Ideas in Morgantown last night left with a little more knowledge about how their brains work and also with an understanding that there's a lot about the human brain that we don't know.  

But this doesn’t bother one WVU neuroscience researcher who was the guest at last night's lecture.

Paul Holcomb says it's all of the unknowns that drive neuroscience research, including his research on the connections between cells in the brains of mice. His research aims to better understand the circuit board of our own bodies: the connections made in our brains. 

Complexity of the Brain

“We’ve come a long way with it but there’s still we don’t know about how these cells and these connections develop,” Holcomb says.

WVU Researcher Paul Holcomb discusses brain research during the Festival of Ideas.
Credit Diane Jeanty / WVU School of Journalism

The brain is an integral part of our body. It tells us what to do, how to think, and to how to feel, but past brain research studies were not conducted very well.

“Unfortunately it really complex than anyone really imagined.”

Advances in technology since then have allowed researchers to study the brain in ways that were not possible in the past.

The Role of Connectomics

The study of comprehensive maps of connections within an organism's nervous system, or connectomics, is the basis for Holcomb's research.

Holcomb walked through his current project dealing with connectomics, showing me a computer screen that displays layers brain tissue.  

When put into motion, it looks like a time lapse video of various dots and circles changing and growing in size. What it is, though, is brain tissue from mice and it shows how connections form between cells.

Holcomb says these images are helping him and other researchers at the WVU Center for Neuroscience understand brain functions.

“This is very early stage in development so we have a lot of different connections and using both this approach and also traditional neuroscience approaches  immunofluorescence  and cell culture things like that we’re trying to basically pick apart all of the potential mechanisms that are inherent for determining which cell connects with which cell.”

These connections and how they form could lead to progress in understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s, Schizophrenia and even Autism.

But Holcomb says it's important to note that this research is just in its infancy. Holcomb cites a quote from MIT Professor Sebastian Sung, who he calls the father of connectomics.

“He was asked all these complex but very important questions. What is Schizophrenia? How do we treat Autism? What is traumatic brain injury? And he didn’t have answers for any of those things and he said I can see that you’re all disappointed. You think that I’m a professor and I’m a neuroscientist because I know the answers to all of these things. Really I am where I am because I know that we don’t know the answer to all of these things. I know how much we don’t know.”

Neurotechnology in the future

But despite this, Holcomb says this century is already seeing significant advances in neurotechnology, technology that deals with the fundamental influence on how people understand the brain.

Holcomb says devices to replace lost brain functions will become more common over the next ten years.  

“When the pace maker was originally created people were very hesitant because the pace maker was being implanted in their hearts. Now pacemakers are relatively common place. So I think now with more communication and more education how these devices work and what the potential benefits are then we have a greater likelihood of being to help more people by having a culture of acceptance of neurotechnology.”

The Obama Administration announced last April that it would fund the Brain initiative. The ten-year, one billion-dollar initiative will provide funding to neuroscience research, and WVU Center for Neuroscience hopes to receive a share.

Diane Feanty is a student at the WVU Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism.