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Finding the conference location was difficul. The best and most detailed instruction from conference staff was that it was “up the hill”. The hotel porter was more helpful. He said it was up the hill. He also gave me a road name, so I walked up the hill on that road, wondering what the Montreal Neurological Institute might look like, and feeling mildly agitated. At the top of the hill one of the many buildings turned out to be the institute. Inside there were corridors, staircases, a lift, and a raised walk way over a games pitch, but no conference. Finally, after meeting many interesting people, I found a conference hall with familiar faces.
Of course, in retrospect I was visiting a well-known temple of brain research. At the National Hospital, Queen Square, London in the late 60s the talk was all about the work of Wilder Penfield and his brain maps at McGill university. It seemed astounding that a small electric current applied to the brain could often engender a thought, a recollection or déjà vu state. This was real science, against which my psychometric approaches to brain injured children seemed hopelessly imprecise (though it was also a very good measure of the consequences of injury). It should have been a reverential moment, but I could only reflect that the main function of a hospital is to nurse corridors.
We began with a very good talk on brain imaging by the research leader Alan Evans, discussing healthy brains for healthy lives.
The scope of the subjects studied, including autism, ageing and the usual range of brain disorders is immense, likewise the North American and international network of which it is part. McGill has a unique 3D map of the brain down to a resolution of 20 microns. In Alan’s view the most common damage to the brain is caused by toxic misfolded proteins. Tracking those down, mostly due to genetic disorders, is a health priority. Autism is a brain disorder with multiple sub-types. Very impressive time lapse imaging of the growing infant brain, which comprehensively rewires itself by age 4 years. Looking at it is enough to watch your childhood in fast forward motion. No wonder we remember little of the first four years of life, since it is only at 4 that we have a more fully working brain (though there are more changes to come as development continues). Connectivity is the key, connectivity of white matter, grey matter, and of brain functional regions. Fibre length is crucial, but carries high metabolic cost.
Alan said he was not an intelligence researcher. Nonetheless I told him that he was, and should say which aspect of the brain was most important for those behaviours which we call intelligent. After a pause, his reply: Long range connectivity.
Update: I have just seen the “big brain” in the most agreeable company of the Pinker family mother and daughter. This is one brain which has been sliced at 10 µ level, and assembled slice by slice in a massive project that has taken 6 years to complete. There are 4 large screens: one shows the brain position in 3D and the other 3 screens show the slice in incredible detail. It is like flying through the brain, while also knowing exactly where you are. This gives a benchmark brain against which individual patient brains can be compared, with tremendous accuracy. It has already been used for gamma knife surgery, and will be used for precise stimulation of very discrete brain locations. I could not help but imagine what my research would have been like if we had had this level of accuracy 40 years ago. As I will explain later, the imaging work is closing in fast onto what makes brains differ in mental power.
More to follow.