How does the brain give rise to the mind? This question lies at the interface between philosophy and biology. Researchers are starting to zero in on how brain activity translates into consciousness and how we experience the world around us. The results have broad implications for cognition, brain health, human nature, and artificial intelligence.
The Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness is a collaboration started by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, bringing together a team of neuroscientists to answer these big questions.
But how is it possible to probe something like consciousness? Professors Adrian Owen, Melvyn Goodale, and Lisa Saksida are all fellows of the Azrieli Program working at Western University, and they look at brain activity at the boundaries between health and dysfunction.
Owen studies patients who are losing consciousness. Communicating with patients who will soon be in a vegetative state, Owen takes functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to observe transitions in the brain as they lose awareness, allowing a better understanding what types of brain activity are preserved or lost.
Along similar lines, Goodale looks at how brain damage impacts cognition, memory, sensory processing, and motor control. These insights illuminate how the brain solves problems and controls complex movement, which have implications not only in health, but also in computer science and artificial intelligence, says Goodale.
Saksida wants to understand how brain circuits are altered in Alzheimer’s Disease. Drug treatment for Alzheimer’s only treats symptoms. There is still no proven therapy that stops or reverses progression of Alzheimer’s. Saksida believes the key to effective treatments is to better understand the brain circuits involved so that they can be targeted to improve cognition.
While the mind remains a bit of a mystery, these studies are working to fill in the gaps. This understanding allows researchers to better understand how the mind emerges, how it can be damaged, and perhaps one day, how it can be imitated or repaired.