TED: Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals

We are just now on the cusp of learning things about the brain. As Dr. Anderson points out in this talk, if you are concerned about a cancer, doctors will run a slew of tests; if you are concerned about depression or ADHD, doctors will hand you a questionnaire. Yes, we know a lot about the very basic details of brains – something I saw first hand while working at the Vision Neuroscience lab at the University of Barcelona. Unfortunately, we are still putting together these most basic pieces. It sounds similar to our understanding of the universe: we have impressive image studies from Hubble and cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation studies that paint a fuzzy but complex picture; we also know a lot about the basic principles of the celestial bodies and forces in between, but we are a long way from understanding the sum of these parts.

Modern psychiatric drugs treat the chemistry of the whole brain, but neurobiologist David Anderson believes in a more nuanced view of how the brain functions. He illuminates new research that could lead to targeted psychiatric medications — that work better and avoid side effects. How’s he doing it? For a start, by making a bunch of fruit flies angry.

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“How is emotional behavior encoded in the brain? And what parts of the brain are affected by depression, ADHD and anxiety? This is what neurobiologist David Anderson researches in his lab at the California Institute for Technology by studying the brains of lab mice and fruit flies. By looking at how neural circuits give rise to emotions, Anderson hopes to advance a more nuanced view of psychiatric disorders — that they aren’t the result of a simple “chemical imbalance,” but of a chemical imbalance at a specific site that has a specific emotional consequences. By researching these cause-and-effect relationships, Anderson hopes to pave the way for the development of new treatments for psychiatric disorders that are far more targeted and have far fewer side effects.”