A New Push To Explore the Brain

This morning Barack Obama invited a small army of neuroscientists to hear him announce a new initiative to better understand the brain. Reports about the plan have been trickling out ever since John Markoff broke the story in February. In anticipation of the announcement, All Things Considered on National Public Radio talked to me over the weekend about the current state of our understanding of the brain, and what it will take to understand it better. I spoke in pretty hazy terms since the government hadn’t officially laid anything down. Now we can take a closer look at what is going to happen, at least in the near future. [Update: here is the official web site from NIH]

Markoff’s originally story generated a huge amount of buzz in science circles because of the bold scope of the idea it described. “The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics,” Markoff wrote. Like the Human Genome Project, the new project would dedicate billions to mapping the brain’s activity.

In his speech this morning, Obama sketched out all sorts of amazing possibilities: cures for Alzheimer’s disease, prosthetic limbs for the paralyzed, and lots of brain-related jobs. If that’s the ultimate goal of this plan, today’s announcement feels like a very soft launch. Obama announced $100 million in funding for 2014 for a project now dubbed the BRAIN Initiative.

BRAIN stands for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. There’s a heavy emphasis on the last word in that name. The scientists involved in the project I’ve spoken to emphasize that they aren’t pretending to be able to completely map the human brain any time soon. (Indeed, some skeptics I’ve spoken to wonder how you would know when you’re done.) Instead, the BRAIN Initiative and whatever it produces in the long run will have a strong focus on building new tools for mapping and recording neurons. And here the parallel between the Human Genome Project and the BRAIN Initiative feels apt.

When scientists embarked on sequencing the human genome, the tools they had for deciphering DNA were expensive and crude. Over the course of the project–and in the years afterwards–they came up with better and better tools. It used to be that a scientist might spent his or her entire career sequencing and studying a single human gene. Now sequencing human genomes is a fairly common part of scientific research, and it will probably become a fairly common part of medical diagnostics in years to come.

Today, it’s hard to listen to more than a thousand neurons at once. Scanners typically can only map the brain down to chunks the size of a poppy seed. With 86 billion neurons and about 100 trillion connections, there’s plenty of room to do better. Whether scientists can do for the brain what they’ve done for the genome we cannot predict.

I will have a lot more to say (and write) about exploring the brain before too long. But if you are eager to dig into the scientific rationale for the BRAIN Initiative, here are a series of papers to check out:

Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping

The Brain Activity Map

The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics (Here’s a longer, open-access version.)

5 thoughts on “A New Push To Explore the Brain

  1. Better, but no cigar. The very premise of the work is flawed. The BAM/Brain project suggests they will discover a “functional connectome”, but they won’t (if the work proposed is what they plan to do). Imagine you run an experiment and record the firing of every cortical neuron. Will that give you a “functional connectome”? No, you have no idea of the synaptic connections. Well, I’m guessing, you’ll coordinate with the human connectome projects. How will this be done? Make guesses, statistically, about which neurons connect to which? Why is this better than extrapolating from a single region, or a statistical subset? What about thalamic and brainstem inputs? Clearly critical. In brief, from what I’ve seen so far, the “functional connectome” is sloppy thinking or low-grade PR. Still need a serious, scientific rationale about why this project is critical, well thought out and special.

  2. I know this is more political than scientific commentary, but doesn’t this move of the US administration deserve reading in the context of the Human Brain Project to which the EU awarded some 1+ G€ over 10 years at the end of January?

  3. To be truly fair, this isn’t about “The Brain” as the public imagines it. There won’t be work on humans. But there will be valuable stuff done on small invert systems, progressing to large-scale recordings in mammals (at least in the short term).

  4. I am cautiously skeptical about knowing “everything” about the brain by just mapping its connections. Whatever the human brain does, it is much more than that. There are multiple factors that not accounted for in this concept, namely, the influence of glia, neurotransmitter spillover, autoreceptors, etc.
    Also, with all due respect, I am seeing a trend about the “86 billion neurons” figure in several popular science websites. I believe that this number comes from Azevedo et al., (2009) J Comp Neurol. 513(5):532-41. If so, if I remember correctly the actual figure for the calculated number of brain cells in the paper above is 86 ± 8 billion. Based on this, the upper limit seems to be about 94 billion neurons, not so different from usual 100 billion that most of us think about. Moreover, based on the same data, this number can go as low to about 78 billion, but no one points this out. As interesting and important as this paper is, it had a rather small sample and I believe it is yet to be replicated. That said, these are indeed exciting times for brain research!
    My two cents… (:-)

  5. @ jipkin: I agree. A lot of good work is currently being done with simple invertebrates like C elegans, where they have mapped all its 300 or so neurons, but to interpret the connections has been more challenging. Also, the extrasynaptic aspects remain. Lots of work still to be done!

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