Brain takes centre stage

The brain encases 100 billion or more nerve cells (pic: Wer weiss Bescheid über das Gehirn? (Bild:

Brain Awareness Week is underway in more than 50 countries. Swiss researchers say new imaging techniques are helping them to understand how the brain works.

This content was published on March 12, 2002 minutes

The annual brain festival is celebrating its seventh birthday this year with hundreds of events scheduled around the world. In Switzerland, where the festival is taking place for the fifth year, conferences, public forums, films and demonstrations are being held in nine Swiss cities, as well as in canton Ticino.

One of the most significant advances in brain-related research in recent years is "imaging" techniques, which allow scientists to study the living brain and to understand how the healthy brain works.

"Until now we have had to rely on brains of deceased people," said Professor Ann Kato from Geneva University's faculty of medicine. "Thanks to new techniques in imaging the brain, we can actually study the brain as it functions."

How images help

These studies are helping scientists and physicians to better understand how to treat brain diseases and disorders.

However Kato admitted that despite recent advances, scientists still know very little about the most complex structure of the human body.

"We know a certain number of pathways which are involved, we know some of the chemicals which transmit signals in the brain. But the actual functioning of the brain has been much more difficult to understand."

Kato's laboratory in Geneva researches motor neurone disease. Her team is investigating substances that could prevent the death of specific cells in the brain.

Treating brain conditions

"With an ageing population, what we're noticing is that there are many diseases which are becoming much more frequent such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease," she told swissinfo. "This is why it's terribly important to understand the functioning of the brain and how to treat these pathological conditions."

Brain Awareness Week is an international effort organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives to advance public awareness about the progress, promise, and benefits of brain research.

Zurich is hosting a separate brain fair next week, organised by the university and the federal institute of technology.

by Vincent Landon

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