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Explorers of the Brain: Research from the Frontiers of Neuroscience

Illustration of head and words Explorers of the Brain Research from the frontiers of neuroscience
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Join host Richard Paul for this radio documentary that takes you to the front lines of research in brain science. From the magnetoencephalography lab at NYU, to the Center for Neuroscience at UC Davis, to the Digital Brain Bank at The Brain Observatory--and at several stops in between--meet a dozen leading scientists and engineers working to bring us closer to a fundamental understanding of how and why the brain does what it does.

Credit: NSF/RL Paul Productions

Audio Transcript:

From the National Science Foundation, this is Explorers of the Brain--research from the frontiers of neuroscience. (MUSIC IN) Right now, inside your head, there's a 3-pound, non-stop, multitasking marvel.

POEPPEL: In some sense it shouldn't work. The fact that it works at all is kind of miraculous.

Your brain--literally the nerve center of your universe.

POEPPEL: Why you like something or not, why you make a decision, how you speak.
ZITO: How we think, how we perceive the environment, how we learn.
KOPELL: Looking for a car as you cross the street.
HOFMANN: Should I run or should I jump or should I just lie down?
POEPPEL: How breathing works, how your temperature is regulated, the fact that your heart is going on.
KOPELL: All of those things involve many different parts of the brain that have to work together.

But despite its centrality--or maybe because of it--much about the brain remains a black box. Van Wedeen is a professor at the Harvard School of Medicine.

WEDEEN: If you asked the first biologist you meet what the heart is for, they can tell you in one second (snaps fingers) how the structure of the heart relates to the function of the heart.

That's not the case for the brain. The complexity involved in understanding the brain is profound. David Poeppel is a Professor of Neural Science at New York University. The best analogy he has?

POEPPEL: Compare it to the structure of the universe.

We have a pretty good idea how many stars there are in the Milky Way Galaxy.

POEPPEL: It turns out to be around 80 to 100 billion. Keep that number in mind. And now compress that number into the size of two fists, which is about the size of your brain. We have about 80 to 100 billion neurons in our head.

But the complexity doesn't stop there.

POEPPEL: Each of those cells--it's connected to 1,000 neighbors. Each Lego block is connected to 1,000 other Lego blocks.

And all of it works together at speeds almost impossible to comprehend. Nancy Kopell is Professor of Mathematics at Boston University.

KOPELL: In fractions of a second, all these different parts of the brain have to coordinate their activity. We're just starting to understand how that kind of coordination can take place.

To give you a sense: Imagine this ...

NAT SOT--METRORAIL
AUTOMATED VOICE: (bell) Doors closing.
FADE AND LEAVE UNDER

You're on the subway after work. You can feel the train rocking from side to side.

NAT SOT--METRORAIL DRIVER STATION ANNOUNCEMENT
DRIVER: Welcome aboard the Red Line. Next stop Friendship Heights.
FADE AND LEAVE UNDER

The handrail's cold and you notice you're sweating. In the next seat, your friend is telling you about the latest fight at work,

NAT SOT--PERSON TALKING WHILE ON THE SUBWAY
FRIEND: And she says, "No! You can't do that. Just like that!
FADE AND LEAVE UNDER

You can smell that someone just cut into an orange and it occurs to you: "Isn't there a rule about eating on the subway?"

NAT SOT--METRORAIL DRIVER STATION ANNOUNCEMENT
DRIVER: Welcome aboard the Red Line. Next stop Tenleytown, American University
FADE AND LEAVE UNDER

And--oh--your stop is in three stations and you're answering your friend's question and the woman in the seat near you has the most gorgeous suit on and you have a dentist appointment next week and ... all of this is happening at once. Everything is parsed, synthesized and made seamless by the incalculable power of your brain. How does it do that?

MUSIC (and sound windows of the subway trip)

WEDEEN: There are certain parts of the brain that have relatively specialized and specific functions.
SEJNOWSKI: That allows us to filter out just those parts of the sensory stream that are directly relevant for the task at hand.
POEPPEL: What it does is effectively make lots and lots of little sub-problems like listening to your friend complaining about work, remembering to pick up your dry cleaning, you know, smelling the orange
SHEA-BROWN: Information about how much your arm is extended or what the light level is.
HOFMANN: Whether you're healthy or sick. And whether you're hungry or not.

See full transcript

 
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