I’m interested in the the way the brain works.
I have been from as far back as I remember. I naturally gravitated towards the neuroscience section without realizing what it was or why I was found myself there. I suspect it’s the combination of the study of the brain’s mysterious inner workings combined with a scientific methodology. I’ve casually dipped into Psychology and Behavior but it didn’t have the logic and neat explanations that I was used to in the sciences. I originally studied Electronic Engineering years ago, then coding and the design of technical solutions. I never considered how my knowledge of electronics could map to neuroscience but it turned out it does, quite nicely. In Electronics you learn the fundamentals of building small devices like current, resistance, voltage, and capacitance. This knowledge allows you to invent new machines or software. In Neuroscience you have those same principles but current is the flow of ions, voltage is in micro sizes and capacitance and resistance depend of the biology of our bodies. It’s the study of the ultimate machine – the human.
The Human Body is the Best of Machines
I signed up to the Harvard EdX – Fundamentals of Neuroscience Part 1 course. It’s free course but you can pay a small fee at the end for the certificate. The mathematical formulas got my brain grinding again, I felt a pang of nostalgia as I started plugging numbers into equations. In neuroscience you have to worry about a lot more than the physical mechanics. You’re dealing with liquid solutions that contain ions like Sodium or Potassium that surround the machinery and the complex arrangement of cells and their membranes. I noticed there was a shift from absolutes to probabilities. You can only be a percentage level sure that an action by a neuron would happen. In electronics we usually know for certain if all other parameters are constant. In the study of neuroscience I felt like I was discovering the blueprint of an impossibly complicated design of a machine. In electronics, I was learning about small building blocks that I could use to design new machines. It was humbling.
I would recommend the course if you have a physics or electronics background. For one, you’ll find it easy to understand the concepts. Two, you’ll be in awe of the way the human body works. And three, you will have a new understanding and appreciation of occasions where the body fails to work as intended e.g. Multiple Sclerosis which occurs when certain elements are damaged leading to the debilitating symptoms in the nerves.
The Advances of Electronics + Neuroscience
The intersection of electronics and neuroscience is not new but over recent years, advances in both fields have opened the door to some intriguing research. For example I came across this research from last year on flexible electronics that can enable new types of neural implants to restore function in the human body. Another article, although several years old now, puts forward the case for more electronic engineers in the field of neuroscience to help make new discoveries in brain disorders and artificial intelligence. In particular, the idea of mimicking the design of real neuron behavior and applying that to the electronic circuits that power our devices. I recently read a book about patterns in nature that are remarkably similar throughout disciplines ‘A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design’ by Frank Wilczek. In the book, the author points out that many discoveries shared striking patterns of symmetry and balance. It stands to reason that the patterns we can identify in a human intelligent machine could lead us to design better machines – even if we don’t understand exactly how they work. Unlike our digital functioning machines, the patterns in neuroscience are analogue and less predictable. With our deeper understanding of quantum mechanics we are finding out that at a tiny, quantum level, the patterns are also less based on digital 1’s and 0’s. Somewhere, these two disciples should inevitably meet with the net effect of improving both.
Recently there has been some very exciting research that shows signs of doing that, specifically to improve the design of electronic devices. The University of Massachusetts Amherst published a paper in April 2020 that explains the discovery of miniature tools (memristors) that operate like real brain synapses. In this way the electronics mimic the human brain in efficient learning by being able to operate at very small voltage levels, much like the brain itself. This low power efficiency can open the doors for many possibilities including the notion that one day we could invent devices that ‘speak to’ real human neurons.
The Future is Neuromorphic
The study of mimicking brain neurons is called ‘Neuromorphic engineering’ and is a pioneering field. You can read more about it here and find out why it is likely to trigger a revolution in engineering. This informative article goes into more detail on the analog nature of Neuromorphic engineering and the world changing applications that could be developed as a result. It also goes into a lot more detail on the technology.
The fundamentals of neuroscience course I took gave me a great introduction to a new field of study. But it also gave me an opportunity to refresh on some old knowledge while learning something new and to consider what this new combination of technologies could offer for the future. The real excitement though is the idea of taking the examples we discover within ourselves and using this as a guide to develop groundbreaking new technologies that could change everything.
If you share the same interest in humans and technology, please check out the ‘Read-Watch’ section of Recknsense where I post about what I’ve read and watched. Find out more About Recknsense and feel free to connect.
Feature image courtesy of eniganomis (on Instagram)