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Letter from the editor | 192

Arithmetic of the brain

There is still some doubt among neuroscientists about the true importance of the precise determination of the number and spatial distribution of neurons to advance knowledge about one of the most fascinating objects in scientific research of all times: the human brain. Quantifying and mapping out these cells may certainly help us understand how the brain functions. However, it seems insufficient to dwell on such data in order to reveal what is intriguing about this organ that a scientist like António Damásio, for example, tries passionately to penetrate in his recent ‘And the brain created man’, where, without worrying about the boundaries between disciplines, he has recourse to the whole arsenal of available knowledge that allows him to move forward in his objective.

Our science editor, Ricardo Zorzetto, takes this into account in the cover story of this issue. In the text he gives the floor over to those who warn how important the actual connections these cells establish are (perhaps more so than the neurons themselves), since they create networks that process the information in a broad way. He does this to put the central object of the cover story of this issue into scientific context: a Brazilian technique that has enabled more accurate recounting of the neurons and other human brain cells and, as a result, an attack on some of the dogmas in neuroscience.

The technique developed by researchers from Rio de Janeiro, led by the respected neuroscientist Roberto Lent, allowed for the number of neurons in the human brain to be put at 86 billion and not 100 billion as had been thought, and indicated that they are accompanied by 85 billion so-called glial cells, instead of 1 trillion, as had been previously vaunted. To facilitate the work, the researchers even developed a machine, an automatic cell fractionator, whose functioning undoubtedly is a great find, even though when it is described in detail it might turn the more sensitive stomachs. It is worth acquainting yourself with this quantitative side of the advances in studies of the brain, starting on page 18.

Here I will take the liberty of personal taste, by requesting the reader’s special attention to the two texts that are not among the cover highlights and, that, therefore, are not the most important in this issue. They are, however, delightful and interesting and I’m counting on the reader’s complicity to understand my choice. The first is the short interview that Rajendra Pachauri, who for 10 years has presided over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), granted to our special editor, Carlos Fioravanti. Among the many battles that he has faced in his position, Pachauri talks about the most recent, that of communication. His intention is to have the panel results reach a wider audience than scientific circles, which is why on December 1 last year he hired journalist Jonathan Lynn as communication coordinator; more details as from page 24. The second text is a report by journalist Salvador Nogueira on the recent findings on the so-called continental drift, the movement of the great blocks of rock that form the continents, which reinforces the hypothesis that the current northeast of Brazil almost became part of what is now African territory. “The Salvador Carnival would have been celebrated on the other side of the ocean,” jokes one of the authors of the study, in true pre-Carnival spirit.  Enjoy your reading!