One of the biggest challenges for science is gaining a better understanding of the mind. It's quite difficult to examine the "thing" that does all the examining. And the human brain is far too complex for us to make an accurate model with our current technologies.
The human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons with the connections between them adding up to a large multitude of that. The most used understanding of how the mind works, is that mental activity is the result of electrical and chemical signals traveling along these neurons and synapses. This can be measured even by a number of brain scanning techniques where certain parts of the brain show activity when actions or thoughts are performed. The "map" of all the neurons and all the connections between them as well as the strength of every connection, is called a connectome, a "wiring diagram" of the brain.
One popular hypothesis among scientists is that it is the precise pattern of this connectome that determines who we are, it's what makes us unique. These connections change over time and change according to the electrical and chemical signals that run through them: the pattern shapes according to our thoughts and experiences and is therefore unique, even between identical twins. But with 100 billion neurons and who knows how many connections between them, there's just no way yet for us to make sense of it or even where to begin making sense of it:
The human brain has a huge number of synapses. Each of the 1011 (one hundred billion) neurons has on average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons. It has been estimated that the brain of a three-year-old child has about 1015 synapses (1 quadrillion).
Sebastian Seung: I am my connectome
Lucky for us, we are the products of millions of years of evolution and that we share a common ancestor with all bilaterally symmetric, multi-cellular organisms on the planet, including invertebrates (insects, nematodes, sea urchins) and vertebrates (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles), called the urbilaterian ancestor. And that's where C. elegans comes in; it's a small nematode, or round worm, one millimetre in length. And since evolution is the process by which existing genetic mechanisms are conserved but changed slightly to result in distinct species, C. elegans nematodes have neurons, skin, gut, muscles, and other tissues that are very similar in form, function, and genetics to those of humans. Watch this brief yet insightful introduction of the world's most popular worm:
OpenWorm: An open-source C. elegans nematode simulation
OpenWorm is an open source project dedicated to creating the first virtual organism in a computer.
C. elegans is also the only conscious organism of which we have the entire connectome: all of them have exactly 302 neurons, with approximately 7000 connections or synapses between them. This has taken a team of scientists more than a dozen years in the 1970s and 1980s, but they managed to map all 7000 connections. One of the most remarkable findings in my mind is that they even found one neuron that is exclusively used by the organism to distinguish "worm" from "not worm", preventing the blind animal to eat it's own tail, and could simultaneously be seen as a rudimentary beginning of self-consciousness.
C. elegans is sometimes called science's favorite pet as it is researched to death. It's basic structure and functions are the same as in humans; it reacts to it's environment, is capable of learning, has a digestive system and metabolism, it reproduces, ages and dies. And neurons function in the same way as they do in our brain and are built in the same way. Because of this basic similarity, we can learn a lot about our-self by studying these ultra dumbed down versions of our-self.
These worms normally have a life-span of 14 days and go through a similar aging process as humans, including becoming slower, skin wrinkling and memory-loss. Since the genes between us and the worms are 60% identical, we can learn what effect different genes have on this aging process. In the laboratory they managed to extend the life-span of these worms to more than 100 days! Imagine if that could be somehow extrapolated to humans... To learn the full extent of this aging study on C. elegans, listen to this podcast by Sean Carroll:
Coleen Murphy on Aging, Biology, and the Future
I'll leave it here, dear reader, and thank you for your visit to my blog. I hope you like the content enough to give it another go tomorrow when I'll be back here. Until then, cherish your connectome!
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