If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll know that I like to talk about my children, what’s happening in my life, and draw parallels to my professional life and the inspiring work of our researchers. Well, next year is my 50th birthday. My wife and I are the same age and so it’s a milestone for both of us. Next year is also our 25th Wedding Anniversary. We will have been married for half of our lives! Indeed, in 2018 we are planning a big celebration to mark these milestones. As we considered what these milestones meant for us, we both became nostalgic. We looked through photo albums and that act in itself forced us to realize how much life has changed. Who has photo albums these days? From these memories, I am able glean lessons about who I am and how I became this person. This got me thinking about how our brains work and what a complex organ it is to be able to contain all of these memories and simultaneously allow us the capability to process the impact of these memories.
Our brains, like our computers, relay information across complex networks of circuits and systems in micro-fractions of a second. And, like computers, this process is programmed into us with a code – a neural code. The functions of the neural code have stimulated decades of research and study. Recently, researchers André Longtin and Leonard Maler from the University of Ottawa won the Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering for their study of neural codes. Through neurobiology, physics and mathematics revealed key features of the neural code that underlies the operation of the brain. Using electric fish to trace the journey of signals as they move through the entire sensory process, Longtin and Maler have been able to observe the hidden traits of brain activity in moments of focus. This was all made possible using research algorithms on high performance computers.
For instance, Longtin and Maler were the first to show how the brain uses movement to gather information and fix attention. When someone throws you a ball, your eyes move between any number of points to locate and track until it becomes easy to isolate the ball and prepare to catch it. At the moment you lock onto the ball, your brain switches its neural-firing pattern—patterns can be isolated or come in bursts of activity—a clear signal that your attention has become focused. Even more exciting, the researchers also showed that our brains ramp up their attention before movements, a sort of instinct to get ready to pay attention.
This ramping up takes place whether we want it or not, in some cases occurring a full four seconds before we move, which raises the question: are we telling our brains we want to move, or is the decision being made for us? What all of this means, is that through this research, as we understand how attention is allocated by the brain, we can possibly understand when it is dysfunctional and repair attention switching in disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Indeed, the next 25 and 50 years will be remarkable, not only because I will hopefully spend it with my sweetheart, but because I get to witness the breakthroughs that researchers like Longtin and Maler will surely uncover.