Neuroscience studies the nervous system, from the molecules that neurons use to communicate to complex behaviours such as behaviour. These phenomena not only occupy scientists, but also big companies interested in deciphering the secrets behind our preferences, our decisions and our impulses. Some advances in neuroscience are truly spectacular: they allow us to recover speech, motor skills, senses; and they will help us understand neurodegenerative diseases to improve our quality of life, especially in our later years.
Advances in neuroscience have been driven by four key scientific and technological developments. First, neuroimaging techniques such as computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography. In Cajal's time, almost all knowledge came from analysis of the post mortemIn the past, it was impossible to access patients' brains while they were still alive. Instead, imaging techniques allow us to see our neurons in action, to observe the changes and processes behind different mental functions and to detect problems related to mental illness, such as depression.
Other neuroimaging techniques use the latest advances in photonics to study in detail the damage caused by serious conditions such as stroke, traumatic brain injury and epileptic seizures. These novel non-invasive techniques are based on the generation of infrared light, which allows us to detect physiological parameters such as blood dynamics, inaccessible to other techniques, to complement our diagnostic tools and better monitor patients' progress. Another technology that has enabled breakthroughs in neuroscience is deep brain stimulation, based on the implantation of electrodes through surgery to selectively stimulate different groups of neurons. Scientists have demonstrated the effectiveness of this technology in improving patients with Parkinson's disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, epilepsy and depression.
Neuroscience has come a long way since Cajal's pioneering discoveries. The growth potential of this set of technologies in the 21st century has been very significant, so much so that it will be key to geopolitical leadership in the coming years. Neuroscience is indisputably linked to technological advances in fields such as virtual reality, the deep learning and artificial intelligence, as demonstrated by some of the advances made by Zaragoza-based Bitbrain, which allow mechanical devices such as wheelchairs and robots to be controlled using our minds. Furthermore, understanding the nervous system and its molecular mechanisms will lead to better tools for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases, a problem of particular concern to an ageing Spanish population. Thanks to the joint development of neuroscience and neurotechnology, as well as a commitment to knowledge transfer and the creation of new companies, we will drive developments that will transform our future. Machines that anticipate our thoughts and prevent accidents, neural interfaces that improve our memory and advanced implants capable of curing diseases such as Parkinson's or epilepsy will soon be a reality.