Impact of Internet on the Neurosciences
Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD
Nowadays we live and move within a full-blown era of information. Human survival requires now that we maintain ourselves maximally updated. The speed of accumulation of knowlegde is increasing at a vertiginous rate in almost all areas of human activity. With the advent of Internet, this gigantic planet-wide computer network, the acceleration of the knowledge's upwarding curve has increased even further.
In the medical and scientific area, Internet is fast becoming an essential environment, not only for the diffusion of knowledge, but also for the cooperation among individuals and institutions. The network allows the professional man or woman to think and act in a global way and to generate and to disseminate valuable products of knowledge to a far-reaching community, with higher efficiency and speed.
The most elementary examples of this remarkable phenomenon occur in the area of access to information. Physicians, biologists and scientists, acting as producers and disseminators of new information, are contributing to the education of students as well as patients in the basic and clinical neurosciences. This is the case of on-line books and journals ( such as the Journal of Neuroscience, for the publication of research papers, or Brain & Mind Magazine, for scientific information for the general public); and of the so-called "educational virtual communities", such as the American Virtual Hospital (and its Brazilian counterpart, HVB), which store a large volume of scientific information, available freely to anyone interested in using it. Immense and well organized anatomic and radiological image banks, such as the Visible Human or The Whole Brain Atlas, or of neuropathological specimens, such as WebPath, provide access to a tantalizing world of visual information, whose existence would be unthinkable before Internet. There are even complete "virtual courses" on neurosciences, such as the Neurosciences Tutorial offered by the Washington University at Saint Louis, which can be taken entirely through the Internet.
How one can possibly find our way amidst such a vast amount of networked knowledge ? Fortunately, Internet provides its own pathfinders, with so many on-line specialized directories and search engines, such as Neurosciences on the Internet and Neurosciences Web Search.
In the field of scientific research, neuroscientists are increasingly making use of national and international cooperation without the need to leave their desks and laboratories. Advanced research projects, such as the Human Genome Project are now developed by many groups located in different places and countries, which cooperate among themselves by using extensively the Internet. With this, the costs and speed of doing research in this area have been tremendously benefitted. A good example in neurosciences is the on-line databases on Cenorrhabdtis elegans. This is a small underground nematode with a length of only 1 mm, but which has become one of the most important subjcts of cooperative scientific studies on developmental genetics and neurobiology, due to its structural simplicity. Its research community is comprised by ca. 1,000 scientists across the world, who interact via the Internet, by using the bionet.celegans newsgroup, discussion lists and email, and by accessing on-line databases such as ACeDB (A C. elegans Data Base), which contains the animal's known genome as well as a complete and detailed anatomical and functional description of every one of its 360 neurons. There is even an official WWW server dedicated exclusively to this organism, which is operated by the University of Texas.
Another example of the tremendous impact and significance of Internet for research and development occurs in the field of molecular neurobiology and neurogenetics. Presently, all sequenced genes and proteins are submitted and stored into gigantic databases such as PIR and GenBank, which are made available via the Internet by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information. If GenBank were to be distributed by using CD-ROMs alone, more than 20 discs would be required, thus making on-line access the best method to get information from it, thus far. A similar trend can be observed in many other fields of the neurosciences.
A fascinating concept permitted by Internet is the so-called groupwork. For example, when a group of scientists decides to write a joint research paper, all of its members may contribute their share to the piece of work regardless of their location in the world. They are able to write simultaneously onto the same screen, practically with the same speed and efficiency as they were sitting by the same table, by using specially-designed "groupware" such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft NetMeeting. This software couples together the remote participants in such a way that every word or phrase may appear identified by different colors, according to who is writing what.
But there are even more advanced applications in sight. Artificial neural networks are a decision-making model which uses the concepts of functional organization of the nervous system. Presently they are being used to help neuroscientists in their research work, closing a very interesting "circle of influence": the neurosciences provide results of biological experiments to the engineers who use them to devise better and more powerful artificial neural networks. These, on the other hand, help out the neuroscientists to analyze biosignals and images, to detect complex patterns and even to make clinical decisions (please check this issue's article of Malcon Taffner on artificial neural networks for a good introduction to the subject). The Center for Biomedical Informatics of the State University of Campinas, Brazil, has developed an artificial neural network which works on the Internet to provide clinical decision support to neurosurgeons in cases of brain trauma. The user provides a number of clinical data about the patient by using an on-line Web form, and the network responds by giving an estimate of the patient's prognosis and whether a surgical intervention should be required to maximize his survival chances (http://www.ldc.com.br/mlucia).
One may imagine that in the future even confepences and symposia will be carried out totally on the Internet. Among a growing number of such events, the Virtual World Congress of the American Association of Chest Physicians is active on-line with dozens of invited speakers, round tables, narrated slide shows and posters. To participate, you don't even need to bother to get an air ticket and hotel rooms. Where is the conference located ? Could be anywhere, this is no longer relevant...
While this future does not arrive in full, the organization of many professional conferences relies a great deal on the resources provided by Internet. For example, the famous Neuroscience Meeting, organized every year by the Society for Neuroscience, where more than 25,000 scientists meet to present and to discuss their work, depends on an essential way from the network. The majority of its details, ranging from the conference's registration and detailed program, to the booking of hotels and the communication of the acceptance of submitted papers, are available interactively through the Internet, thus facilitating the life of all involved parties.
In this way, it becomes evident that the universe of knowledge is going through a transformation of its paradigms. An interesting effect is starting to be noticed: the changes in the behavior and in the psyche of people who interact through the "virtual society" which has been made possible so recently by the advent of Internet. Scientists are actually investigating these behavior changes, by observing its differences in relation to other communication and social interaction behaviors in a face-to-face environment. This fascinating new field has already its own journals, such as CyberPsychology & Behavior and The Journal of Online Behavior. The latter aims at publishing new research on the "empirical study of human behavior on on-line environments, the impact of evolving information and communication technologies on individuals, groups and society".
On may conclude that, for all purposes, the "on-line society" made possible by Internet represents a new revolution in the realm of human communication and in the extension of the powers of our nervous system by means of technology. This path started historically when our species arose millions of years ago, first with learning and communication by gesture and imitation, then by the powerful step represented by language acquisition, and finally by the invention of writing. The global and all-pervasive instant electronic interaction of the future will radically change our ways as well as our brains.
Neuroscience will never be the same again.