Ten Advancements in Brain Science Worth Celebrating

  • Victoria Veilleux

Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Robb Report Health & Wellness as “Cognitive Concerto

A celebratory score for the gains made in brain health

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks famously likened the brain to a “vastly complicated orchestra with thousands of instruments, an orchestra that conducts itself, with an ever-changing score and repertoire.” Remarkably, that entire orchestra weighs just 3 pounds, a mere 2 percent of the average person’s total body weight, but it requires 20 percent of the body’s energy stores. 

Despite being recognized for centuries as playing a significant role in one’s personality and bodily function, the brain has long been an enigma to physicians and philosophers alike. Nicolaus Steno, a 17th-century Danish scientist, remarked, “The brain, the masterpiece of creation, is almost unknown to us.” Certainly, and thankfully, much has been learned about our gray matter since the 1600s, and in just the last decade that knowledge has accelerated exponentially. The federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, begun in 2013, has generated funding and excitement around brain research that can be compared with the space race of the 1960s. Those resources, coupled with the introduction of new imaging technology and the use of big data—enabling researchers to mine an ocean of digital information—has given us these 10 advances to celebrate about that mysterious, orchestral organ.

{1} The brain is under perpetual construction.
It was once believed that one is born with a set number of brain cells that is continuously depleted throughout the life span. Neurologists now know the brain proceeds to form new neural pathways even as we age and can generate new brain cells. More than 70,000 thoughts per day spark chemical and electrical signals that speed along superhighways between neurons. Learn a new skill set like a foreign language and a new avenue forms to connect those neurons. Brain games help to maintain established pathways: Fill in the potholes, repave, and paint the lines. Neuroscientists have witnessed such neuroplasticity through molecular imaging in patients suffering from brain injuries that require them to reroute neural highways around damaged tissue to restore function. 

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