Unravelling the brain’s greatest secrets

The human brain is one of nature’s most complex structures yet it is the organ we know least about. While there is still a long way to go, neuroscientists are making incredible headway into unlocking the secrets of the sophisticated grey matter – from revealing how the brain recognises speech sounds, to finding treatments to a whole host of illnesses from depression and anxiety to Alzheimer’s, serious head trauma and brain tumours.

Often recognised as the new frontier of science, brain research represents a colossal challenge for scientists – a challenge well worth overcoming, however, as the potential rewards from unravelling the brain’s greatest secrets are fundamental to improving human life.

When we move, speak, think, sleep, dream, or love – it all happens in the brain. Whether we are happy, depressed, angry or impulsive – it is the grey matter at work. Indeed, study into this sophisticated organ takes so many fascinating forms. From addressing hidden patterns behind neurological disease to mending damage from traumatic brain injuries, to advancing treatments for diseases, such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, dementia, and paralysis, to improving treatment and understanding of depression and chronic pain. The list is endless. And the race is on amongst the scientific community to persuade the brain to yield its greatest secrets yet.

It’s All in the Mind

It is estimated that neurological disorders affect as many as one billion people worldwide and they are considered as one of the greatest threats to public health1.

Among the most feared disorders, dementia (Alzheimer’s being the most common form of dementia) is currently affecting 44 million people worldwide and is set to affect 135 million by 2050, with more than 70 percent of sufferers living in poorer countries2.

Professor Cecilia Bouzat, a leading neuroscientist, has dedicated her professional life to advancing potential treatments for neurological disorders, such as these. Recognised for her seminal research on how, at the molecular level, brain cells communicate with muscles to make them contract, her work has already answered many questions related to the various ways neurons “talk” to the rest of the body. It has lead to advances in a wide array of applications, including treatments for physical ailments like chronic pain, as well as psychological disorders such as addictive behaviours, anxiety and depression.

“The human brain is one of the most complex structures found in nature, and therefore unravelling its function is a big challenge, which will impact on the understanding of life, mind and the essence of the human being,” says Professor Bouzat.”

Professor Brigitte Kieffer, another revered scientist in this area of brain research, made incredible headway when her and her team “extracted a gene from the genome that would lead [scientists] to understand opioid effects on the brain, and further, mechanisms underlying pain control, reward processes and addictive behaviours at molecular level,” explains Professor Kieffer.

“I am fascinated by the fact that modifying a single protein in the brain, among the hundred thousand proteins that form each individual neuron, is able to alter highly sophisticated behavioural responses,” she adds.

Brain Teaser

Indeed, study of the brain knows no bounds. Brain research recently hit the headlines in the USA when the media homed in on the so-called “NFL concussion crisis.” Articles focussed on the damaging effect of head injuries and professional footballers. Reports were based on studies linking traumatic brain injuries from playing American Football to retired players suffering from a rare brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)3.

CTE is clinically associated with symptoms of irritability, impulsivity, aggression, depression, short-term memory loss and heightened suicidal tendencies, that usually begin 8–10 years after experiencing repetitive mild traumatic brain injury4. With advancing disease, more severe neurological changes develop that include dementia, gait and speech abnormalities and Parkinson’s4. Riveting - yet scary stuff.

A recent study published in the journal Science in February also captured worldwide attention when it was revealed that the shaping of sound by our mouths leaves "an acoustic trail" that the brain follows.5

The study's senior author, Dr. Edward F. Chang, from the University California San Francisco (UCSF), explains, "By studying all of the speech sounds in English, we found that the brain has a systematic organisation for basic sound feature units, kind of like elements in the periodic table."5

"This is a very intriguing glimpse into speech processing," Chang says. "The brain regions where speech is processed in the brain had been identified, but no one has really known how that processing happens."

The UCSF team hopes its findings will contribute to work around reading disorders. In a reading disorder, printed words are inaccurately mapped by the brain onto speech sounds5.

Mind Over Matter

While we are nowhere near to fully understanding the brain’s mind-boggling complexity, this organ that makes us “human” and gives us the ability not only to develop language and rational thought, but also crafts our memories, movements and personalities, holds the key to treating a host of everyday diseases. Through the work and dedication of exceptional scientists, great strides continue to be made into further unlocking the secret of our grey matter – with life altering effects.

1 World Health Organization

2 Alzheimer’s Disease International

3 Medical Daily: http://www.medicaldaily.com/does-cte-really-exist-expert-questions-studies-find-rare-brain-disease-ex-nfl-players-268125

4 Brain journal: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/136/1/43.long

5 Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/272068.php

For Women in Science

Before downloading this file

We confirm that the use of the Contents provided on this website is strictly for editorial purposes only.

We understand and confirm that any use, reproduction or representation of the Content provided on the Site (in whole or in part) or of the elements which comprise it, for commercial purposes whatsoever, is not authorized and violations in this regard shall invite strict legal action as per applicable laws & regulations.

We understand and confirm that the right to use the Content is on non-exclusive, non-transferable basis.

We hereby confirm that all information/statements/certificate in this database are provided without any warranty, express or implied, as to their legal effect, completeness and effects of any transaction under process may not be completely reflected.

We hereby confirm that all information/statements/certificate should be used in accordance with applicable laws. Use of information/statements/certificate shall be at my/ our own risk and L’OREAL shall not be responsible for the same.

We do hereby confirm that by using this Site, I/we am/are deemed to have accepted these Terms of Use without reserve.

I agree to the terms of use