Directions for teachers:
Ask your students to read the introduction of the online Science News article “Three visions of the future, inspired by neuroscience’s past and present,” which explores how advances in the field of neuroscience are bringing scientists closer to expanding, linking and healing human brains. Then, have students choose one vignette in the article to read and answer questions about. Make sure students also read the “Reality check” section that is paired with their vignette. Example answers are provided for the vignette “Science future: brain bots.” A version of the story, “Our brains, our futures,” can be found in the March 13, 2021 issue of Science News.
This story is part of a series that celebrates Science News’ upcoming 100th anniversary by highlighting some of the biggest advances in science over the last century. For more on the history and future of neuroscience, and to see the rest of the series as it appears, visit Science News’ Century of Science site at www.sciencenews.org/century
1. What was science’s understanding of the brain like 100 years ago? What did scientists know about the brain, and what was a mystery?
Science had a very primitive understanding of the brain a century ago. Researchers identified nerve cells as important components of the brain and nervous system, but they didn’t understand how the cells communicated or how they influenced behavior, memory and emotions.
2. When did neuroscience become an official STEM field? How has the field advanced in the decades since it was established? What obstacles remain?
Neuroscience became an established field in the 1960s. Using powerful tools developed over the last few decades, scientists have found that a single nerve cell can connect to tens of thousands of other cells and that it’s likely more than 100 different kinds of brain cells communicate using dozens of chemicals. Though scientists are collecting more data on the brain than ever before, there still isn’t a complete explanation of how it operates.
3. How are scientists working to overcome those obstacles?
Scientists are mapping the brain’s neural connections that move information from one part of the organ to another. This atlas of the brain’s communication systems, called the connectome, is helping scientists view the brain differently. The maps are now starting to be used to treat disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
4. Why does the Science News article include fictional vignettes? What purpose do they serve?
The vignettes help readers imagine what neuroscience advancements are ahead based on real research that’s happening today.
5. What vignette did you choose? What technology does the vignette describe, and how is the technology used?
I chose the vignette “Science future: brain bots.” The story describes how microscopic robots called nanobots are implanted into a woman’s brain to help treat her depression.
6. List some pros and cons of the technology described in the vignette.
That neural network could pinpoint and precisely repair the woman’s brain circuitry that was misfiring and triggering depression. The technology could fix other problems, such as addiction, dementia and eating disorders. But it raised questions about what it means to be a person if the brain is influenced by robots, and who or what should have control over thoughts and emotions.
7. How realistic is the vignette? What about the vignette is fact and what is fiction?
While the nanobot treatment for depression doesn’t exist, the idea that scientists will be able to change certain brain networks to improve health is real.
8. Describe some of the real scientific research and advancements that inspired the vignette.
Research into nanoscale robots engineered to roam the body and act as doctors was a big inspiration for the vignette. Some of the advancements that served as inspiration include deep brain stimulation for treating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other disorders, as well as miniscule electrodes and neural nets used to track brain activity in mice.
9. What hurdles do scientists still need to overcome to reach their goals of advancing neuroscience?
Scientists are still figuring out how to reliably change brain activity and where to make the change. That location differs among disorders and among individual people.