Mapping the Human Brain by Mike McInnes
A recent initiative of the US National institutes of Health (NIH) to map the human brain was announced. The project has been entitled: “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN).”
The quotation below is sourced from the NIH:
“On April 2, 2013, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative to “accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.”
n response to this Grand Challenge, NIH convened a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH, to develop a rigorous plan for achieving this scientific vision. To ensure a swift start, the NIH Director asked the group to deliver an interim report identifying high priority research areas that should be considered for the BRAIN Initiative NIH funding in Fiscal Year 2014. These areas of priority are reflected in this report and, ultimately, will be incorporated into the working group’s broader scientific plan detailing a larger vision, timelines and milestones.
The goals voiced in the charge from the President and from the NIH Director are bold and ambitious. The working group agreed that in its initial stages, the best way to enable these goals is to accelerate technology development, as reflected in the name of the BRAIN Initiative: “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.” The focus is not on technology per se, but on the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insight about how the nervous system functions in health and disease. In addition, since this initiative is only one part of the NIH’s substantial investment in basic and translational neuroscience, these technologies were evaluated for their potential to accelerate and advance other areas of neuroscience as well.
In analyzing these goals and the current state of neuroscience, the working group identified the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons as being particularly rich in opportunity, with potential for revolutionary advances. Truly understanding a circuit requires identifying and characterizing the component cells, defining their synaptic connections with one another, observing their dynamic patterns of activity in vivo during behavior, and perturbing these patterns to test their significance. It also requires an understanding of the algorithms that govern information processing within a circuit, and between interacting circuits in the brain as a whole. With these considerations in mind, the working group consulted extensively with the scientific community to evaluate challenges and opportunities in the field. Over the past four months, the working group met seven times and held workshops with invited experts to discuss technologies in chemistry and molecular biology; electrophysiology and optics; structural neurobiology; computation, theory, and data analysis; and human neuroscience (a full list of speakers and topics can be found in Appendix A). Workshop discussions addressed the value of appropriate experimental systems, animal and human models, and behavioral analysis. Each workshop included opportunity for public comments, which were valuable for considering the perspectives of patient advocacy groups, physicians, and members of the lay public.
Although we emphasize that this is an interim report, which will develop with much additional advice before June 2014, certain themes have already emerged that should become core principles for the NIH BRAIN Initiative.”
Homo Insapiens: The Shrinking Human Brain
I am currently engaged in research that indicates that the human brain is shrinking for the first time in our evolutionary history. There are two reasons for this, one positive and the other negative.
In a bipedal species with a narrow pelvis it is not possible for the brain to grow larger, or it will not exit the pelvic canal at birth. Therefore there is a potent evolutionary selective advantage for the brain to become smaller, smarter and more efficient, as in the case in any information technology device. A brilliant article by Kathleen McAuliffe discover Magazine in January 2011 drew attention to this little known phenomenon
“…….John Hawks is in the middle of explaining his research on human evolution when he drops a bombshell. Running down a list of changes that have occurred in our skeleton and skull since the Stone Age, the University of Wisconsin anthropologist nonchalantly adds, “And it’s also clear the brain has been shrinking.”
“Shrinking?” I ask. “I thought it was getting larger.” The whole ascent-of-man thing.
“That was true for 2 million years of our evolution,” Hawks says. “But there has been a reversal.”
He rattles off some dismaying numbers: Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion. “I’d call that major downsizing in an evolutionary eyeblink,” he says. “This happened in China, Europe, Africa—everywhere we look.” If our brain keeps dwindling at that rate over the next 20,000 years, it will start to approach the size of that found in Homo erectus, a relative that lived half a million years ago and had a brain volume of only 1,100 cc. Possibly owing to said shrinkage, it takes me a while to catch on. “Are you saying we’re getting dumber?” I ask.
Hawks, a bearish man with rounded features and a jovial disposition, looks at me with an amused expression. “It certainly gives you a different perspective on the advantage of a big brain,” he says.
After meeting with Hawks, I call around to other experts to see if they know about our shrinking brain. Geneticists who study the evolution of the human genome seem as surprised as I am (typical response: “No kidding!”), which makes me wonder if I’m the world’s most gullible person. But no, Hawks is not pulling my leg. As I soon discover, only a tight-knit circle of paleontologists seem to be in on the secret, and even they seem a bit muddled about the matter. Their theories as to why the human brain is shrinking are all over the map……………..”.
Albert Einstein may have been a primary example of the evolutionary tendency to a smaller and more efficient brain. In the 1980’s Professor Marian C Diamond at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) obtained samples of Einstein’s brain and found a higher ratio of glial cells to neurones. This is a historic scientific finding – the glial cell contains the cerebral glucose pump – the glutamate/glutamine cycle, critical to transporting glucose into the brain and for furnishing the energy used by neurones in the form of lactate – each glucose molecule is converted to two lactates and these are transferred to the neurones. In modern times excess consumption of refined carbohydrates suppresses this cycle via hyperglycaemia and hyperinsulinism. This would account for Einstein’s extraordinary intellectual capacity – his brain was both smaller and more energy efficient.
“…In a mayonnaise jar filled with fluid, here were my four sugarcube-size pieces of Einstein’s brain. Evidently, Harvey had cut up the brain and embedded the pieces in a substance called celloidin which harden almost like plastic. Having the brain in this condition was ideal for my purposes because we wanted to count cells under the microscope. To do this it was necessary to make thin slices, 6 micra in thickness (a micron is one thousandth of a millimeter). In order to cut at this precise level of thickness the tissue had to be processed in celloidin. Preserving the brain in this manner does not allow for some other methods of examination such as refined chemical analysis. We were extremely fortunate to have the tissue preserved in a way that proved ideal for us. We had our 44 pieces of brain from the 11 normal males. We could now compare the glial neuron ratios in the 4 pieces from Einstein’s brain with the 44 pieces from the normal males. With the help of an excellent technician and statistician (a scientist rarely works alone), we learned that in all four areas, Einstein had more glial cells per neuron than the average man, but in only the left inferior parietal area did he have statistically significantly more…”
The Glia: The Relativity Cell
Since there are around 10 glial cells for every neurone, not only are they critical to neural function, they constitute the largest part of the human brain – neurones only account for around 10% of the brain. They may also emerge as the key cells in cognitive and temporal information processing. An October 2013 study led by Kevin Healy of the School Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Dublin showed that temporal information processing by animal brains is critical to survival, and that the perception of time is relative to the speed of information income. In other words the speed with which animals (and humans) gather information determines their perception of time – a human experiencing a car crash accelerates temporal information processing such that they slow the perception of time – “time stood still” – time is not only relative to energy and matter in space, time is also relative to the speed of information processing in the brain, and therefore to the speed of energy consumption, of energy transfer into the brain and therefore to the conversion of glutamate to glutamine, via glutamine synthetase, the enzyme that drives the cerebral glucose pump in glial cells.
In this sense we may describe the glutamine synthetase as the Einstein Enzyme and the glial cell as the Relativity Cell.
My research on modern metabolic impairments indicates that the source of all our degenerative metabolic diseases – both physiological and neurological, lies in suppression of the cerebral glucose pump and its driving enzyme, glutamine synthetase, and this in turn is due to hyperglycaemia and hyperinsulin suppression of each of these. Thus in addition to these diseases we are also compromising temporal information processing and therefore for us, time perception is accelerating – both in children and in adults. Work by Vivienne Russell in South Africa has shown that poor provision of cerebral energy in children via suppression of the glutamate/glutamine cycle is a major factor in ADHD. Slowing of temporal information processing (and therefore relative acceleration of time perception) are markers of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Children with much faster cerebral metabolic rates contingent on massive requirement to process environmental information perceive time as much slower than do adults whose time perception increases as their cerebral metabolic rates decline.
If suppression of the cerebral metabolic rate in humans is a recent phenomenon that results from our increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars, and consequent suppression of the cerebral glucose pump, does this mean that the human race is becoming demented?
Yes, rapidly so. The current global incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is 35 million, a figure that doubles every 20 years. At the present rate of increase (this is very likely to accelerate) there will be 1 billion demented humans 100 years from now. The fastest growing section of the population is the centenarians – therefore can the demented look after and fed the demented?
Foetal Dementia: Myth or Reality?
We already have a childhood model of Alzheimer’s (ADHD) or at least its modern form – neo-Alzheimer’s. We know that pregnant mothers with pre-diabetes or obesity may give birth to larger infants, a related to hyperglycaemia and high insulin. Could this have any influence on the developing foetal brain?
There is evidence that it may. We know that modern metabolic impairments are driven by excess energy in the systemic circulation such that the cerebral glucose pump is suppressed and the brain is short circuited – exactly the same mechanism that would occur in any high energy mechanical or electrical system. Could such a development occur in the foetal brain. A group at the University of Copenhagen, led by Associate Professor Roger Pockock has discovered that sugars are critical to the formation and growth of the foetal brain, controlled by the gene mir-79 in worms (mir-9 in humans).
“…. “It has earlier been shown that signaling molecules guide nerve migration, but our research shows that mir-79 regulates nerve cell migration by controlling the correct balance of sugar-transmitters on signaling molecules. If mir-79 does not function, the worm nervous system is malformed. In the wild, such defects would be harmful for worm survival…………………….”
The implications are clear and devastating. Modern humans are not only compromising neural function during childhood and beyond. We may be compromising the development of the foetal brain via the same mechanisms. The key and critical mechanism that we are impairing is that of the cerebral glucose pump in the glial cell.
The Glial Cell and the Future of the Human Brain
A group of concerned neuroscientists have asked the NIH and the BRAIN advisers to reconsider their decision not to include the glial cells in the initiative to map the human brain.
The glia cell and its malfunction, is now rapidly emerging as the driving force of a variety of physiological, neurological and also neuro-psychiatric conditions.
There seems to be a groundswell of opinion among neuroscientists suggesting that to map the brain and exclude the glial (Einstein’s Relativity) cells may be one of the greatest errors in the history of science – a bit like mapping diabetes and excluding the pancreas.
May I ask all supporters of the Ragged University, who may be concerned, to write to the BRAIN Initiative at the following address and ask them to reconsider: 30/09/2013
(c) Mike McInnes 30/09/2013