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STOA Annual Lecture 2014: Do we know how our brain works?

Written by Geoff Archer

The STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) Panel was proud to welcome Professor Thomas Südhof for this year’s Annual Lecture. Professor Südhof, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine, spoke to the audience about his ground-breaking work on the functioning of brain synapses.

Drawing on the experience of a life devoted to research, he also found time to share a few personal reflections on winning a Nobel Prize and highlighted the challenges for scientific research in the future.

What are synapses and why are they so important?

The human brain is incredibly complex. Weighing in at around 1.5kg it is composed of around 100 billion neurones and up to 1 Quadrillion synapses. This is what is needed for humans to function on a day-to-day basis and is the fundamental basis of human emotion.

So how does a synapse work? In simple terms, each synapse is composed of a pre- and post-synaptic cell within a synaptic membrane. Upon arrival of a nervous signal, vesicles in the pre-synaptic cell containing neurotransmitter chemicals diffuse across a synaptic cleft to the post-synaptic cell. Here they stimulate the onwards transmission of the nervous signal.

Although a simplification of the process, this offers some insight into why synapses are vital for communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Professor Südhof illustrated this by describing a goalkeeper attempting to save a shot on goal: processing an image of the ball, calculating a course of action and re-transmitting this throughout the body. All involving 20-30 synapses and occurring in nanoseconds.

Why is brain research so important?

Sophisticated techniques for capturing data about brain function, MRI and PET scanning for example, do now exist. The use of these techniques has greatly enhanced our knowledge of how the brain reacts to different stimuli. In turn this has led to the development of experimental treatments such as ‘Deep Brain Stimulation’ for mental health conditions such as major depression.

However despite such recent advances in medical science, we are only at the beginning of our understanding about the brain. Insight into cognition and memory, fully understanding brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and the molecular basis of brain function are only some of the areas we have yet to fully explore. Professor Südhof explained this by saying, simply:

“There’s a perception that we know a lot about the brain and the diseases that are becoming an enormous burden on our population, Alzheimer’s, Schizophrenia etc…We don’t know a lot at all about these diseases. The work we did was essential but it was a tiny step and we need more.”

Progress on treating brain diseases?

Policy-making based upon sound evidence provided through scientific investigation sounds like a simple concept. However the audience at STOA’s Annual Lecture heard from Professor Nutt that they should, “…beware of a research wasteland in neuroscience”, even whilst brain diseases cost almost 800 billion euro across the EU.

Why such a wasteland though? One reason could be that funding for neuroscience research appears to lag behind other areas, for example nanotechnologies and carbon capture and storage. The term ‘neuroscience’ also cuts across several areas of science and healthcare making related policy-making more susceptible to inertia.

Work is being undertaken in the EU to address this problem however with the establishment of the European Research Area. This facilitates the sharing of knowledge, and movement of scientists, across the EU but there is still room for improvement as underlined by Mairead McGuinness MEP, Vice-President responsible for STOA who opened the Annual Lecture.

The Annual Lecture helps to pull down the communication barriers between scientists and policy-makers and STOA looks forward to inviting you to our Lecture next year in 2015.

The 2014 Annual Lecture was organised by Gianluca Quaglio, Administrator in the Scientific Foresight Unit of the European Parliament. Please contact him at gianluca.quaglio@ep.europa.eu for further information.

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About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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