Where are we in our brain

brain research

The look in the head

An estimated 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) communicate with one another via 100 trillion synapses. The nerve cells and the synapses - connection points through which the information transfer from nerve cells to other cells takes place - form a huge network in which information is shifted and generated.

The brain functions are divided into four areas, of which the Cerebrum the most important is. The centers for seeing and speaking are located here, and thinking is also essentially a function of the cerebrum. The Diencephalon controls the autonomic nervous system, i.e. the part of the nervous system that controls vital organ functions.

The Cerebellum is mainly responsible for the coordination of the body. in the Brain stem elementary reflexes are controlled, such as yawning or breathing and heartbeat. The brain stem is the oldest part of the brain in evolutionary terms.

Imaging methods measure brain activity

In order to uncover the secrets of the brain, neuroscientists measure which parts of the brain are particularly active under which circumstances.

An important imaging method is what is known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a special form of conventional MRI. The test person lies in a long tube in which a magnetic field is generated. In fMRI, the researchers also measure the oxygen content of the blood in the brain. In this way, they make visible how and where the brain is currently working.

For example, if the test person raises a hand, a certain region of the brain becomes active. With the help of the fMRI images, the scientists can identify which areas of the brain are affected by diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or after a stroke. These findings can help develop therapies.

In magnetoencephalography (MEG), researchers use sensors to measure the fine electrical activities of nerve cells in the brain. On the resulting images, they can see how stressful certain parts of the brain are. In this way, increased activity can be localized in the brain.

Even if the underlying technology of such measurement methods is highly complicated, simple experiments with such methods show which areas of the brain are used for certain tasks.

This makes it easy to determine whether a test person develops strong feelings during an experiment, whether he imagines images or has to think a lot. Some measurements give such clear results that scientists can utilize the measured currents.

This makes it possible to control a computer using imaginary commands: sensors measure, for example, the brain activity that occurs as soon as the test subject imagines a certain movement, and implement this impulse - for example to move a cursor on the monitor or to move devices to control.

This technology is being developed to give people with disabilities the opportunity to communicate with their environment solely through imaginary commands.

Mind and brain

Despite such experiments, science is far from being able to read out the content of our consciousness. How the brain works as an organ is completely different from how we perceive ourselves, how we think and feel.

In the brain itself there are no images or colors, but only certain switching states, as in a computer. A certain neural state can be imagined as a photo that shows all the activities of all neurons at a certain point in time.

There is no obvious connection between this neural state and a simple experience of consciousness, such as a color sensation.

Most neuroscientists assume that, in principle, the contents of an imaginary image, for example, can also be recognized from the outside. But even if we were technologically able to do so, we would not be able to use it to describe what we feel.

So even if we were able to understand and describe all processes in the brain precisely, we would not be able to fully explain the way in which we perceive things.

The gap between the measured brain activity and the experience of the actual thought process remains insurmountable even for brain research. Nevertheless, the brain researchers agree: Everything we experience, perceive and think is a result of the activities of the brain.

Future visions and goals of brain research

The more precisely the researchers know the centers of brain activity, the more diverse they can influence them. This applies primarily to neuronal diseases in which certain areas of the brain are damaged.

For example, the scientists at the Ruhr University in Bochum succeeded in refining the sense of touch simply by using a special magnetic coil: They stimulated the part of the brain responsible for this motor segment with an external magnetic field. After just a few sessions, the scientists were able to measure an improvement in fine motor skills.

This type of external stimulation, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, is used in diseases of the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's, and mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.

Brain researchers are also coupling the imaging processes with artificial intelligence. With the help of the two technologies, they want to predict how diseases such as Parkinson's will progress in patients in the future.

But even for healthy people there may be a number of applications from brain research in the future that could simplify or improve daily life. One vision of the future, for example, is that, thanks to brain scans, we will better understand how we learn and process information.

But whether more complex knowledge or skills can be implemented at the push of a button is questionable. In theory, there is nothing against it if we understand the brain's code more precisely. Ultimately, such visions also make brain research one of the most exciting fields of science of our time.