The future of neuroscience

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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Within the last 40 years, extraordinary technological developments in the field of brain imaging have produced a cornucopia of new techniques for examining both the structure and the functioning of the living human brain.

Exquisitely detailed anatomical images, acquired through computerised tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can now be combined with moving pictures of the brain ‘in action,’ acquired with positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), high-density electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalopathy (MEG), to investigate many different aspects of normal and abnormal brain function.

In line with this technological revolution, there has been a relative explosion of scientific articles, journals and books devoted to all aspects of brain imaging – from no-nonsense descriptions of the basic physical principles to ingenious studies designed to shine a light on the very essence of what it means to be human.

Media interest has never been higher. It is a rare week, indeed, when a brain imaging study claiming to have unearthed the neural basis of jealousy, fear or the love of chocolate does not hit the international headlines. Such coverage has also had a measurable effect on popular culture. Several recent best-selling crime novels have relied on these new brain-imaging methods to drive plots, while Hollywood hasn’t been slow to equate ‘brain imaging’ with ‘mind reading’ for the purposes of family entertainment.

In short, extraordinarily rapid advances in neuroimaging technology have had an enormous impact on the way that both scientists and society view the relationship between brain and behaviour.

And herein lies the main problem for any observer bold enough to try to predict the next 40 years; brain imaging is technology-driven. The rate of progress in this field is so rapid that any prediction about what will happen next is likely to be obsolete even before it is printed.

That said, one thing is certain: Regardless of what emerges technologically to allow us to acquire images of the human brain better and faster than ever before, what will undoubtedly change is what we will learn to do with that information.

Right now, the gulf between technological know-how and depth of understanding has never been wider and many of the most recent developments in this field have yet to find solid applications in the real world. That is to say, the development of reliable, valid and efficient means for interpreting and understanding the information contained within a single scan of the human brain still lags far behind our ability to acquire these beautiful images.

With advances in cognitive theory, computational modeling and systems neuroscience, this gap will close. This change is likely to be most keenly felt in the field of clinical neuroimaging. Thus, although both functional and structural brain imaging have already contributed dramatically to our understanding of the causes of various medical conditions, their diagnosis and management, the real clinical promise of many of the latest technical advances, has yet to be fully realised.

Forty years from now, a typical ‘brain scan’ will be as unrecognizable, awe-inspiring and magical as the scans of today must have been 40 years ago.

Adrian Owen is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging in the Faculty of Social Science.