The Top 5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2012


More than any year before, 2012 was the year neuroscience exploded into pop culture. From mind-controlled robot hands to cyborg animals to TV specials to triumphant books, brain breakthroughs were tearing up the airwaves and the internets. From all the thrilling neurological adventures we covered over the past year, we’ve collected five stories we want to make absolutely sure you didn’t miss.

Now, no matter how scientific our topic is, any Top 5 list is going to turn out somewhat subjective. For one thing, we certainly didn’t cover every neuroscience paper published in 2012 – we like to pick and choose the stories that seem most interesting to us, and leave the whole “100 percent daily coverage” free-for-all to excellent sites like ScienceDaily.

As you may’ve also noticed, we tend to steer clear of headlines like “Brain Region Responsible for [X] Discovered!” because – as Ben talks about with Matt Wall in this interview – those kinds of discoveries are usually as vague and misleading as they are overblown by the press.

Instead, we chose to focus on five discoveries carry some of the most profound implications of any research published this past year – both for brain science, and for our struggle to understand our own consciousness.

So on that note, here – in countdown order – are the five discoveries that got us the most pumped up in 2012!


5. A Roadmap of Brain WiringA grid of fibers, bein' all interwoven and stuff.

Neuroscientists like to compare the task of unraveling the brain’s connections to the frustration of untangling the cords beneath your computer desk – except that in the brain, there are hundreds of millions of cords, and at least one hundred trillion plugs. Even with our most advanced computers, some researchers were despairing of ever seeing a complete connectivity map of the human brain in our lifetimes. But thanks to a team led by Van Wedeen at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, 2012 gave us an unexpectedly clear glimpse of our brains’ large-scale wiring patterns. As it turns out, the overall pattern isn’t so much a tangle as a fabric – an intricate, multi-layered grid of cross-hatched neural highways. What’s more, it looks like our brains share this grid pattern with many other species. We’re still a long way from decoding how most of this wiring functions, but this is a big step in the right direction.


Opto Brain Blue_49704. Laser-Controlled Desire

Scientists have been stimulating rats’ pleasure centers since the 1950s – but 2012 saw the widespread adoption of a new brain-stimulation method that makes all those wires and incisions look positively crude. Researchers in the blossoming field of optogenetics develop delicate devices that control the firing of targeted groups of neurons – using only light itself. By hooking rats up to a tiny fiber-optic cable and firing lasers directly into their brains, a team led by Garret D. Stuber at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine were able to isolate specific neurochemical shifts that cause rats to feel pleasure or anxiety – and switch between them at will. This method isn’t only more precise than electrical stimulation – it’s also much less damaging to the animals.

(Thanks again, Mike Robinson, for sharing this image of your team’s laser-controlled brain!)


3. Programmable Brain Cells

7d1-chk-nf-h-3Pluripotent stem cell research took off like a rocket in 2012. After discovering that skin cells can be genetically reprogrammed into stem cells, which can in turn be reprogrammed into just about any cell in the human body, a team led by Sheng Ding at UCSF managed to engineer a working network of newborn neurons from a harvest of old skin cells. In other words, the team didn’t just convert skin cells into stem cells, then into neurons – they actually kept the batch of neurons alive and functional long enough to self-organize into a primitive neural network. In the near future, it’s likely that we’ll be treating many kinds of brain injuries by growing brand-new neurons from other kinds of cells in a patient’s own body. This is already close on the horizon for liver and heart cells – but the thought of being able to technologically shape the re-growth of a damaged brain is even more exciting.


microchip2. Memories on Disc

We’ve talked a lot about how easily our brains can modify and rewrite our long-term memories of facts and scenarios. In 2012, though, researchers went Full Mad Scientist with the implications of this knowledge, and blew some mouse minds in the process. One team, led by Mark Mayford of the Scripps Research Institute, took advantage of some recently invented technology that enables scientists to record and store a mouse’s memory of a familiar place on a microchip. Mayford’s team figured out how to turn specific mouse memories on and off with the flick of a switch – but they were just getting warmed up. The researchers then proceeded to record a memory in one mouse’s brain, transfer it into another mouse’s nervous system, and activate it in conjunction with one of the second mouse’s own memories. The result was a bizarre “hybrid memory” – familiarity with a place the mouse had never visited. Well, not in the flesh, anyway.


1. Videos of Thoughts

reconstruct1Our most exciting neuroscience discovery of 2012 is also one of the most controversial. A team of researchers from the Gallant lab at UC Berkeley discovered a way to reconstruct videos of entire scenes from neural activity in a person’s visual cortex. Those on the cautionary side emphasize that activity in the visual cortex is fairly easy to decode (relatively speaking, of course) and that we’re still a long, long way from decoding videos of imaginary voyages or emotional palettes. In fact, from one perspective, this isn’t much different from converting one file format into another. On the other hand, though, these videos offer the first hints of the technological reality our children may inhabit: A world where the boundaries between the objective external world and our individual subjective experiences are gradually blurred and broken down. When it comes to transforming our relationship with our own consciousness – and those of the people around us – it doesn’t get much more profound than that.


So there you have it: Our picks for 2012’s most potentially transformative neuroscience breakthroughs. Did we miss an important one? Did we overstate the importance of something? Almost certainly, yes. So jump into the comments and let us know!

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16 Responses to “The Top 5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2012”

  1. Uri says:

    where can i get my hybrid memory?

  2. Excellent posting! Always appreciate good evidence and maps for next steps.

    An additional short point: so much is evolving with fresh measurement technology these last years – the tech insights that chase down specific IgG issues, endocrine and neurotransmitter issues that reveal imbalances contributing to brain dysfunction – and have the appeal of low cost immediacy.

    With these basic understanding we can move much more directly into applications that restore public confidence for office-psych interventions. Try this one on for size: probiotics that encourage BDNF, yes. That one is not all firmed up yet, of course, – but this next year looks promising for improved assessment tools with utilitarian applications.

    The absolute best news: many are moving away from the outdated DSM 4/5, considered useful only by those completely uninformed about neuroscience discoveries.

    My short take on evolved critical thinking:

    Dr Charles Parker
    Author: New ADHD Medication Rules – Brain Science & Common Sense

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  5. […] save your life someday; there’s no doubt about that. But getting educated about your own mind and brain may save you — and your doctors — a lot of work and worry in the long […]

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  7. Stacy says:

    I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blog award–for some reason my post didn’t ping you, so I’m letting you know now. :)

    here’s the original post:

  8. […] The Top 5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2012 […]

  9. Willaim says:

    Could it also be true that these new breakthroughs could be used for destructive purposes such as mind control and the implantation of false memories for example. Furthermore, if it is true that memory can be captured by memory, wouldn’t that then disprove many Buddhist proponents view that the mind is not the brain but a formless continuum?

    Although if it had disproved such beliefs then surley it would have made the news or caused some kind of anarchy. I’m asking these questions because they worry me quite alot, and as a Buddhist I certainly don’t want my beliefs to be taken away.

    In a different light however, the Deli Lama did say that if science disproves religion then Buddhism needs to change, which to my own suprise I actually agreed with quite strongly.

    But the problem is I follow a different linage of Buddhism to his holiness, my personal guru never spoke of his tradition changing of the day ever came that science proved it wrong. Would really appreciate some feedback guys :)

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