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Mark Schnitzer: How to better understand the brain

Midway through a 12-year, $5 billion “Brain Initiative,” technology is producing profound insights into how the brain works — or doesn’t.

Two brains emanating rays of light

We’re closer to understanding Parkinson’s and other diseases where the brain circuitry seems to be malfunctioning. | iStock/filo

Stanford’s Mark Schnitzer says several of the more exciting recent advances in his field of applied physics have come through developing new imaging technologies that peer into the brain as never before.

What’s more, Schnitzer says the insights gained have put the world closer to solving long-vexing brain diseases, like Parkinson’s and others, where the circuitry of the brain seems to be malfunctioning.

Schnitzer says that these new imaging methods are helping medical science discern the specific functions of various cells that make up the brain’s complex communications systems. No longer is the brain seen as a monolith of neurons, but instead as a complex organ made up of numerous cell types, each with its own role to play in proper function.

Best of all, medical science is starting to move toward manipulating these cells with new drugs and other treatments that could lead to a cure or effective treatment for previously untreatable diseases and chronic pain, as Schnitzer tells Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast and host, bioengineer Russ Altman. Listen and subscribe here.