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Will It Ever Be Possible to Understand the Human Brain?

Despite technical breakthroughs like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, scientists still have no reliable model of how the brain actually works

Brian Bergstein
Published in
15 min readAug 21, 2019

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TThe 19th-century villa, glass-walled conservatory, and gardens of the Carlsberg Academy in Copenhagen is hallowed ground in the history of science. It was originally the home of J.C. Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg brewery. Jacobsen decreed that the property should become “an honorary residence for a man or woman engaged in science, literature, or art.”

From 1932 to 1962, that resident was Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist who worked out how quantum mechanics determines the structure of atoms. This is where Bohr strolled and conferred with luminaries of science like Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, discussing the essential physics problems that provided the groundwork for the nuclear age.

Today, the Carlsberg Foundation maintains the home and gardens for scientific conferences and symposiums. And for three days this past May, over a dozen scientists from around the world gathered there to share pieces to a puzzle as fundamental as the ones that occupied Bohr: how the brain works.

Mainly they talked about how they might begin to figure it out. How is information represented and processed in the spongy, fatty organ? How do the interactions of its 86 billion neurons, which vary greatly in their shape and other physical properties, facilitate reasoning, decision-making, and movements? What can cause these systems to falter, and what does it take for them to recover?

These are questions as big as any human beings have pondered, and the answers so far are sketchy and provisional at best.

“Let’s say we could actually record from 1 million neurons in a brain while it’s operating. You’d get a lot of data, but what would we look for? That is what we have to get some idea of.”

“We are making progress, but it’s a very difficult problem,” says Sara Solla, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who…

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Brian Bergstein
OneZero

Journalist in Boston. Editor at large, NEO.LIFE. I’ve been executive editor of MIT Technology Review and tech editor at the AP. More info: brianbergstein.com