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'Computers cannot mimic human brain entirely'

Nobel laureate Sakmann says only parts of brain?s function may be reproduced, reports Satyen Mohapatra.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2007 19:50 IST
Satyen Mohapatra
Satyen Mohapatra

If you thought computers could someday substitute for human brain, think again. The machines will not be able to mimic the whole brain in the foreseeable future though parts of the brain’s function may be reproduced, believes Nobel laureate Bert Sakmann.

Bert who was here along with Nobel laureate Paul J Crutzen to attend the EU-India Ministerial Meet on science got the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1991. He has done profound research on electrophysiology, trying to discover the molecular, cellular and electrical changes in the brain related to learning and decision-making.

Speaking to the Hindustan Times, Bert said that for the last five years he has been working with rats and has discovered how the “short term” memory of rats is affected by the lack of a single protein called glutamate receptor.

Interestingly, an area of the brain called hippocampus has cells called place cells that represent the surrounding environment, he said. “Our hypothesis is that as glutamate receptors are required in the making of place cells, lack of them makes rats lose their ability to navigate.”

As a kid, the Stuttgart-born Nobel laureate was interested in physics but later on got drawn towards cybernetics as he felt living organisms could be understood in engineering terms.

He explained, "In the decision-making project we are making rats take a decision to jump a gap by the feeling of touch by their whiskers. The decision to jump or not is taken in 200 mili-seconds.

“We are discovering that an electrical message passes from the whiskers in a millionth of a second to the fifth layer of the cortex (where probably the decision is taken) before it is sent to the motor cortex for execution.”

Bert had received the Nobel Prize for finding the single ion channel in the cell.

Paul J Crutzen who got his Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1995 along with Mario J Molina and F Sherwood Rowland for explaining the role of gases like nitrous monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and chlorine on the ozone layers in the troposphere and stratosphere, said earlier studies had neglected the role of nitrous monoxide and nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere.

“We are happy today that out results have convinced politicians and industries bringing about a check in production of these gases which cause depletion of ozone layers and global warming.”

“Actually the plans to build large fleets of aircraft emitting nitrous monoxide and nitrogen dioxide gases and flying much higher than Concorde, were shelved following our findings,” Crutzen added.

The scientist has also worked on the dense blanket of pollution over Asia called Asian Brown Cloud and its impact on climate and monsoon.

“We found it cools the earth’s surface and heats the surface leading to change in meteorology of the region,” he said.

Blaming the burning of fossil fuels and biomass for air pollution, the Nobel laureate said that India with a GDP growth of nine per cent must make available some funding to address this problem. More people die from air pollution than malaria, he added.

He said, “Delhi’s air seems to have undergone huge improvement since I last visited eights years ago though Calcutta I found was still being polluted by autorickshaws.”

First Published: Feb 09, 2007 23:06 IST

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