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Brain research into order in the chaos

Brain research into order in the chaos

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Neuroscientist Sanne ten Oever wants to carry out measurements to map out the activity of every brain cell (a total of 80 billion).

It is always difficult to explain what her research is about, says Ten Oever. The inevitable question at family parties is: What is it exactly that you do? “That is when I have to come up with a clear explanation. I always start off by saying that I look at what happens in the brain. Based on that, I try to predict behaviour. Many researchers do the opposite.”

Postdoc Sanne ten Oever can still be surprised about what goes well in the brain every day. “I am sitting here telling you a story, while I make gestures with my hands and at the same time I taste the coffee in my mouth. All of this is possible because of myriad brain cells acting simultaneously in various areas in the brain. It runs like a well-oiled machine, when in principle so very much could go wrong. You wonder why there aren't more short-circuits.”

Ten Oever deals with the order in the chaos. The chaos stands for 80 billion brain cells or neurons that are either active or not. “They do not do their own thing, because there are brainwaves that create order and structure. They determine when neurons are on or off.”

Most research into this structure limits itself to a single area of the brain, she says. “I often deal with sound and then I focus on the auditive areas, which is where sound is processed. I then look at, for example, the way in which brain waves - also known as oscillations - bring order to the activity in that area. I would really like to put the whole brain under a magnifying glass, to find out whether the waves in other areas of the brain work in the same way. For example in areas where something completely different happens, where the memory is active, where information is stored.”

For this she would like to carry out measurements to map out the electric activity of every brain cell. That is not possible at the moment. “We can use the waves to measure the activity of a few individual neurons, or of the brain as a whole. In the latter case, you get an overall network measurement. This is much less detailed than if you were to measure all cells simultaneously.”

To do so with the present technology, Ten Oever would have to lift the skulls of test subjects and insert electrodes deep in the brain. A research proposal that would not be easily passed by the Ethics Assessment Committee.

Imagine that advanced, patient-friendly technology were possible in the future, then you would think that a single test subject with a healthy brain was sufficient. No, Ten Oever would need to involve hundreds of test subjects in the study. Why? Because even though the brain of test subject A may to a large extent be similar to that of test subject B, they are not identical. “It is not a case of one specific neuron being in the same place and doing the same thing in everybody. Besides, connections that are not used, disappear. The brain of a person who has always dealt with language differs from that of a mathematician.”

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