Tapping into the brains behind human behaviour
SCIENTISTS’ understanding of the brain will one day be so profound that the brains of serial killers and paedophiles could be "rewired" to stop them offending, according to a leading scientist.
Professor David Price, of Edinburgh University, is one of only two dozen people in the world working on how genes control the growth of the brain.
He said that research over the past 20 years had led to increasing optimism about whether the secrets of the brain could be discovered. The latest discoveries have given fresh hope of finding treatments for epilepsy, motor neurone disease and schizophrenia.
Prof Price said: "The human brain is staggeringly complex: 15 billion cells with about a thousand billion connections between them. Understanding how the development of such a complex structure is controlled might seem an impossible task, but research in the past 20 years has made us more optimistic.
"In the mid-1980s, research that built on the earlier discovery, in the 1950s, of the structure of DNA and the genetic code, revolutionised our understanding of how simple organisms, such as insects, develop.
"And then a truly remarkable discovery was made - that the genes and genetic mechanisms which control development of even very simple organisms are retained in humans. This gives us hope that research on organisms with rudimentary brains will help us learn a lot about how our own brains develop."
Prof Price said that most of the brain’s functions would be eventually unravelled, although this would take several decades.
This would even include correcting behavioural flaws in serial killers and paedophiles to make them harmless.
"I think the amount of work that would have to be done before we could even imagine what could be done would be colossal," he said.
"People don’t behave in a totally predictable way, but in theory it should be possible." Prof Price said understanding of the brain had come on in leaps and bounds and he expected the pace of discovery to quicken still further.
"I think the next 20 years will be really exciting," he said.
One reason is the ability to use genetic engineering to produce mice with tiny differences in their genetic make-up.
This allows scientists to see how their brains develop and therefore discover which genes control which areas.
"We can monitor the way the mice’s brains develop and what cells turn into, the way they connect up and ultimately you could monitor the behaviour of the animal," Prof Price said.
However, one aspect of the mind will probably remain forever unknowable, Prof Price said.
"Consciousness is not a measurable entity. The awareness of self is not something you can ever measure in anyone else. I think that will be forever impossible to understand in terms of the mechanisms of what’s going on," he said.
He said the way a human brain was formed was the product of genetics but also its experiences from a very early stage.
The once-polarised nature-nurture debate had been resolved in the middle ground, the professor said.
"Cells in the brain are influenced by the environment around them - other cells and also ultimately outside," he said.
"Once the embryo is born, the brain has still got a lot of growing to go, it has a lot of connections to make at the time of birth.
"There’s tonnes of evidence that the environment is playing an absolutely critical role."
But despite the growing knowledge of the workings of the brain and increasing technologies, building one in a laboratory would still be an "astonishing feat of biological engineering".
However Prof Price added: "It’s very easy to build a brain - you just get a male and a female together."
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