Thursday, September 01, 2016

Seeking to Understand the Brain
According to many scientists we are currently living in the age of brain research

Orfilio Peláez |
August 31, 2016 12:08:46

Dr. Pedro Valdés Sosa, deputy director of the Neurosciences Center of Cuba. Photo: Yaimí Ravelo

According to many scientists we are currently living in the age of brain projects. Suffice it to mention the astronomical budgets that developed countries dedicate to understanding the most complex organ to have emerged from the human evolutionary process, which remains a mystery despite efforts undertaken to date to fully comprehend how it works.

As such, Europe, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Canada are all vying to dominate this field in a competition similar to that waged in the sphere of biotechnology.

According to Doctors of Science Mitchell and Pedro Valdés Sosa, director and deputy director of the Cuban Neurosciences Center (CNEURO), respectively, their justifications for spending such large amounts of taxpayer’s money on these projects are compelling and two-pronged.

"From the perspective of health, population aging is contributing to an alarming growth in the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases. Suffice it to mention that dementia and other cognitive disorders affect 3% of the world's population, which is why the World Health Organization has declared such illnesses a health emergency of international concern. As such, brain research attempts to understand and develop a cure for these diseases."

However, an equally if not more important consideration is money. According to both experts, the European Union is investing over one billion euros in an attempt to create neuromorphic computers able to function like a human brain. The project's core goal is to give European brain research an edge over its U.S. rivals. Meanwhile, the U.S. is looking to develop techniques allowing a glimpse into the machinery of the human mind, and create novel procedures able to simultaneously record the activity of thousands of neurons.

Increasingly high resolution neuroimaging (Brain Mapping) and novel nanotechnological tools are key elements to these projects. To this must be added the development of wearable sensors, daily, user-friendly accessories which measure the functioning of the brain, heart and other organs.

Meanwhile, the urgent need to deal with the astonishing amount of information generated by such research led to the emergence of a new discipline, neurocomputing, a mix between computing, mathematics, physics and neurosciences.

China became involved in brain science projects later, but arrived with a 20-year plan to overtake all other countries. Research in this field is set to become the fourth most funded within the Asian nation's science and technology sector over the next 15 years.

Speaking to Granma, Dr. Pedro Valdés Sosa noted that Cuba was one of the pioneers of Brain Mapping when, in 1969, it began to use computers – such as the Cuban-developed CID-201 minicomputer and creation of the MEDICID device – to research electrical brain activity, efforts supported from the outset by Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro.

These achievements saw the country insert itself and begin to chart its own path in the field of electrical brain tomography. Such efforts eventually saw CNEURO assume the management of national Mind Mapping projects from the 1990 onward. Some of the institution’s most noteworthy results include having characterized the cortical thickness and brain connections of the average Cuban.

Today, the institute develops technologies for the timely diagnosis of dementia and strokes, through the use of state-of-the-art equipment including a high-resolution 3 Tesla MRI Scanner.

Such achievements have seen Cuba recognized as a global leader in the field of brain mapping. The island's ability to undertake large-scale basic research to benefit the health of its people, a goal constantly promoted by Fidel, led the World Health Organization to propose that the CNEURO co-direct the Brain Projects and Global Health meeting, held in Geneva Switzerland, last July 1.


These brain projects gave new life to an old specialty known as psychophysiology, a branch of psychology responsible for studying how thought and emotion affect the interface of mind and body.

Neural mechanisms of addiction; brain placidity during neuropsychiatric treatment; and the effects of aging on the brain, feature among some of the most important areas of psychophysiology.

Modern psychophysiology was developed in Cuba by Dr. Mitchell Valdés, through the use of MEDICID. His work group obtained important scientific results, such as determining how the brain codifies abstract concepts. They also developed projects to detect and treat hearing loss and learning difficulties.

It comes as no surprise therefore that Cuba is set to host the International Organization of Psychophysiology (IOP) World Congress, taking place August 31 through September 4, in Havana's Meliá Hotel.

Sponsored by the IOP, the Cuban Neurosciences Society and Neurosciences Center of Cuba, around 370 specialists from Japan, China, France, Canada, Italy, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, among other countries, are scheduled to attend the event.

In this regard, IOP President, professor Giuseppe Chiarenza, sated: “I happily recall the unanimous response when I proposed Cuba to host the event. The scientific prestige of the Neurosciences Center of Cuba is unparalleled in Latin America."

According to Dr. Mitchell Valdés Sosa, now is the time for Cuba to expand efforts in human brain research and its application, as well as neurotechnology.

Now, just as it did back then as one of the first nations to develop its biotechnological industry, Cuba has the unique opportunity to make a significant contribution to the national economy with its achievements in brain science and above all, help to alleviate the suffering of people affected by brain conditions and unable to enjoy life to the fullest.

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