One hundred years ago humankind was still living in a world that did not know much about the way our brains work, about addictions, about specific neurofunctional pathways involved in memory creation, about brain physiology and neurotransmitters in general. Along the way, specialists came to discover and devise specific neuromonitoring techniques like x-ray computed tomography (CT scanning), functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, and even electroencephalography (EEG), which helped the scientific community delve deeper into the secrets that still had to be uncovered. Some of the most incredible discoveries that modern neuroscience has made are randomly presented.
Without a doubt the discovery of neurogenesis has revolutionized neuroscience, the educational sciences and psychology altogether. Widely, neurogenesis refers to the brains’ capacity to produce new grey cells, but today, scientific studies have repeatedly shown that our brains are capable of doing this even as we grow older, not only during early childhood. Strong correlations have been found between neurogenesis and learning, mood and memory. In other words, everything that we learn, that we store in our memories and/or the hormones released in our bodies influence the growth of new grey cells in three areas of our brains. This discovery has major implications and practically means that the individual is the sole regulator of his brains’ neurogenetic activity; if someone decides to write a book or teach children math, the creation of new brain cells is inevitable, just as improving the memory is as a result of that activity.
2. Prediction of decision from micropatterns of brain activity
Throughout history philosophers have tried to find the answer to a fundamentally existential question: Do we have free will? While being one of the most debated topics of the century, it seems that neuroscience has found evidence to suggest that free will is intimately connected with our brains’ activity and that this activity actually determines the choice we are going to take up to 6-7 seconds before we consciously make that decision. The study of cerebral activity with an fMRI enable scientists to predict which button their subjects will push with almost 100 percent accuracybefore the event actually happens. Taking into account that the brain represents the physiological support for all our beliefs, opinions, memories and values, it is fair to believe that this discovery only highlights the true nature of our existence: brain activity and conscience are two sides of the same coin.
3. Mirror neurons
The concept of “mirror neuron” has gained wide interest in the scientific communities during the last years; however, the functionality of neural mirroring mechanisms is still the subject of much speculation. Scientists have found that, in humans, mirror neurons can be detected in various areas of our brains which are specialized with carrying out fine and detailed motor actions and especially with learning. The hypothesis of learning through imitation is widely accepted, but what we learn by making use of these mirror neurons is still being studied. Some scientists suggestthat our learning ranges from basic surviving skills (eating, hiding, and exploring, avoiding danger), to developing empathy and language, up to complex professional abilities (using a computer, riding a bicycle, learning a foreign language).
For centuries scientists believed that once we reach a certain age our brains become fixed, rigid and stagnant for the rest of our lives. Quite recently, neuroscientific studies have shown that neuroplasticity exists in various degrees across all ages. Neuroplasticity can be defined as the brain’s ability to cortically re-map the nerve cells – an essential process in learning and not only. As we experience the world around us, the brain adapts and assimilates that information creating new neural pathways while consolidating older ones as well. Also, neuroplasticity has been found to be the key brain process in recovering from injuries and diseases. For example, an individual who has had a part of his brain removed is expected to recover as soon as other regions of the brain rewire to undertake the functions for which the removed part was initially responsible.
5. Non-invasive deep brain stimulation and behaviour
Deep brain stimulation has been a technique used to treat various ailments and diseases for many years now, but non-invasive deep brain stimulation is the latest cutting-edge clinical discovery of the century. Normally, a medical device, called a “brain pacemaker” that sends electrical impulses to carefully selected brain regions, is implanted underneath the skull. This method is widely used today to treat the uncontrollable shaking in patients with Parkinson’s disease, for example. But recent studies have shown that it can be easily applied to children with ADHD and other impulsivity disorders without having to medicate and worry about any other side-effects.
Taking into consideration the exponential rate at which discoveries are made in science today, I cannot help wondering how much time it will take until we will discover the secrets of eternal life or eternal youth.