September 30, 2020

"The essence of who we are is in our neural connections"

He began to study the connections between neurons when I did the doctorate. Alex Fornito is today one of the great experts in the mapping of the complex network that forms our brain, and that conditions who we are and is related to diseases such as depression wave schizophrenia.

"The brain is like a fingerprint, everyone has their own", says Fornito who works at the Turner Institute for mental and brain health (Australia) and was recently in Madrid to talk about neuroscience and its impact on our lives, within the Future Trends Forum of the Bankinter Innovation Foundation.

Our brain is a “hypercomplex” network formed by billions of neurons that establish billions of connections and where the way information flows is “what determines how we perceive the world, what our biases are and all of this shapes our personality” . "The essence of who we are – Fornito tells Efe – is determined by the connections between the different regions of the brain and how they communicate with each other."

In the last century, neuroscience has tried to understand what part of the brain participates in each function, "which is very important, but it is not everything," because "speaking, hearing and smelling is something that does not occur in isolation." All that information – he explains – “mixes” and, therefore, the connectivity between the different regions of the brain is what allows a “unique experience” to be conformed.

Connectivity in the brain: a unique experience

Fornito, a professor at the Australian Monash University, has spent years designing the map of connections between neurons and between different parts of the brain. "Once we have that map," he says, "we can ask ourselves other questions as if there is a rule to know how neurons are connected."

He "Great challenge" of neuroscience It is "trying to understand how much the brain changes from one person to another and what margin of change is bad in terms of health or can increase the risk in the medium or long term." Deepen and improve the maps of neural connections It will help to “better understand what happens with mental illness”, which are not usually the result of damage to a neuron or a part of the brain, but rather "how the different neuronal pathways communicate".

Some disorders

Disorders such as schizophrenia, depression or attention deficit they occur – says Fornito – "when there is a disruption in neuronal communication" and in the last two decades it has been discovered that it is the genes related to synaptic function and connectivity that are involved. As a "more refined" knowledge of the neural connections in these diseases develops, the hope is that more precise solutions can be developed to treat them, "which can be a brain stimulation technology or a medication."

Neural circuits also have to do with compulsive behaviors and if the brain pathways that promote them are identified, a specific therapy could be developed to change "the activity of that part of the brain." However, it clarifies that electrodes have been implanted in people with obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) and there are cases in which they can be very effective, but in others it has not been so. “The challenge now is to understand what will work for a specific person and not for another”.

Gradually, the map of the neural connections is being completed, but knowing when you can have a complete brain picture depends on how you want it to be accurate. "There are those who will tell you what it is to know where each of the synapses is, of which there are millions and it is super complex to decipher," he explains. But others consider that not so much data is needed, "that we can find an intermediate level", with which you can see the whole brain, know the function of each part, where the circuits go.

"I think," he says, "that resolution may be enough to look for circuits that are involved in certain mental disorders."

. (tagsToTranslate) Scientific research

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