Similar to the call of JFK in 1963 to land man on the moon safely, President Obama issued a new research initiative in April which has as much impact as JFK’s 50 years ago: to invent and refine new technologies to understand the human brain. Referred to as the Brain Activity Map (BAM) it comes on the heel of the EU’s initiative called the Human Brain Project (HBP) announced earlier this year in January to simulate the human brain using a supercomputer. The BAM has been compared to the Human Genome Project (HGP) which was an international, collaborative research program whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings. The HGP was the natural culmination of the history of genetics research and the results were surprising. Despite identifying the genes, researchers still have not succeeded in identifying genes that predispose us to common chronic diseases. The researchers only found 20,500 or so genes, when they expected many more to explain the over 140,000 different expressions of those genes within the human system. They found that genes can be expressed differently without altering the sequencing of the gene itself, and that those changes can be passed on. Essentially, we can change our genetic expression within our life and pass that on. The field of research that explores the processes and outside influences that alter gene expression is called epigenetics. Today, a wide variety of illnesses, behaviors, and other health indicators already have some level of evidence linking them with epigenetic mechanisms, including cancers of almost all types. Cognitive dysfunction, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, autoimmune, and neurobehavioral illnesses all have growing research indicating an epigenetic link. Despite the obvious impact on an organism from “outside” influences, this science is still in its infancy wanting of more attention, research and funding. The mechanistic approach to mapping the brain could discover the same type of thing: that despite understanding the workings of the brain and all of its interconnections to the body, scientists might be surprised and be no where closer to understanding the inner workings of the brain because they haven’t factored in the epigenetic “outside influences” on it.
Some scientists refer to this time as the “Golden Age for the Brain”. Your brain contains roughly 100 billion nerve cells forming anywhere for a trillion to perhaps even a quadrillion connections called synapses. These connections are constantly in motion and changing, responding to the world around you. Your brain not only interprets the world, but creates it. And therein lies the problem, much like what was discovered by the HGP: how do we explain the many possible combinations of reactions by only looking at the synapsis or mechanics of what is happening within this 3 lb universe made of brain tissue? If the HGP proved anything, it proved that there are outside influences that must be taken into consideration to explain the complex changes in the expression of the gene without changing its basic sequencing. Doesn’t it follow that scientists should factor in the impact of the human mind on the brain if they are to truly understand how the human system works?
Of the many questions being looked at today is the idea of brain versus mind. This duality basically states that while the brain and mind are clearly connected, they two are separate entities. The brain is easy to define and now is going to be mapped by President Obama’s initiative.The brain takes information and translates it into chemical signals which are sent to the rest of the body, to those genes that express specific DNA sequencing. We now know, these genes can be expressed differently due to outside influences despite being of the same sequence. But how does one explain the mind, which can be conceptualized as the consciousness, the “I” of you? What is creating the instructions for the brain to follow? The brain experiences consciousness and provides the interface much like a computer interacting with the world wide web. Depending on what a person chooses to pay attention to will influence the information the brain will interpret. It comes down to approach in the end: reductionism used in the HGP to map the human genome showed that it could not explain the effects of the environment on gene expression, consequently an immense amount of interest has been directed toward a better understanding of the epigenetic links (outside factors) that influence the genes. What will this reductionist approach reveal about the mind and brain dualism and the impact of choice on the human body?
Perhaps this new initiative will discover that the real key to understanding the brain will be to understand the mind. Eastern civilizations have looked at consciousness as a means to map the mind and have used this knowledge for millennia in their different practices. If the key to the brain is the mind, then the key to the mind is consciousness itself. Through practices that focus on awareness itself such as meditation, one creates the possibility of a different expression, or change in the instructions that follow from the brain to the body, which implies to the genes themselves. A 2010 joint study at UCLA and UC San Francisco showed that meditation can lead to increases of certain enzymes, and went a step further to show that the psychological benefits of meditation are linked to these enzymes as well (1). It makes sense that our bodies are participating wordlessly through our thoughts as expressed by our genes. Thus we could say that the body is impacted by the mind via the brains signaling process. Will we, after all of this effort to map the brain, find out we have missed the bigger picture? Will research on the effects of consciousness follow a similar fate to epigenetics ?
Scientists are awaiting with baited breath about what both the Brain Activity Map (BAM) and the Human Brain Project (HBP) will bring in terms of new tools not yet available to them and the progress in treating diseases like Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury this long-term and very expensive research may provide. While all of that is taking place, perhaps one could skip the waiting and take a pro-active role in their own health by using ancient and readily available practices like meditation and other awareness and centering techniques. These methods of going to the source of the input (and the influencing inherent factors) have already provided evidence that they have physical and psychological impacts that might prove to be much more helpful in the long run and are economical to boot!