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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2006

Session II

From genes to brain/mind

How can we go from genes to brain and mind? A common estimate is that perhaps 30% of all human genes are specific to the nervous system. But what is the relationship between the biology and neurophysiology of the brain and the nature of consciousness? Experimental scientists are now seriously focusing their attention on such questions, which used to be the purview of novelists and philosophers. Scientists rely on objective observations and measurements. How can the use of such methods open access to the inherently private and subjective realm of consciousness? To what extent do specific molecules in the brain cause consciousness and 'control' behaviour?

Many researchers remain skeptical. But what is the skepticism, expressed in many quarters, based on? What are the reasons we have for rejecting the proposition that we are nothing but 'biological machines'? We may grant machine status to the retina and even reproduce it as 'a neuromorphic microchip' to replace it when needed, but as one moves to other cognitive functions the epistemological obstacles to a scientific theory of consciousness are bound to become more formidable. However, if it is true that no link has yet been established between the vast majority of genes/neuronal networks and any psychological property, that state of affairs could change in the coming years. A broad dialogue between various experts and stakeholders should help avert the danger that such new information and its applications will take society by surprise.