When physicists puzzle out the workings of some new part of nature, that knowledge can be used to build devices that do amazing things--airplanes that fly, radios that reach millions of listeners. When we come to understand how brains function, we should become able to build amazing devices with cognitive abilities--such as cognitive cars that are better at driving than we are because they communicate with other cars and share knowledge on road conditions. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering chose as one of its grand challenges to reverse-engineer the human brain. When will this happen? Some are predicting that the first wave of results will arrive within the decade, propelled by rapid advances in both brain science and computer science. This sounds astonishing, but it’s becoming increasingly plausible. So plausible, in fact, that the great race to reverse-engineer the brain is already triggering a dispute over historic “firsts.”
The backdrop for the debate is one of dramatic progress. Neuroscientists are disassembling brains into their component parts, down to the last molecule, and trying to understand how they work from the bottom up. Researchers are racing to work out the wiring diagrams of big brains, starting with mice, cats and eventually humans, a new field called connectomics. New techniques are making it possible to record from many neurons simultaneously, and to selectively stimulate or silence specific neurons. There is an excitement in the air and a sense that we are beginning to understand how the brain works at the circuit level. Brain modelers have so far been limited to modeling small networks with only a few thousand neurons, but this is rapidly changing.
From Scientific American
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