Mapping How the Brain Thinks

The White House wants to fund a huge project that would allow scientists to see, in real time, how a brain does its work

The challenge is to figure out how all that wiring works.
The challenge is to figure out how all that wiring works. Image courtesy of Human Connectome Project

A year and a half into his presidency, John F. Kennedy challenged U.S. scientists to get Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. At his recent State of the Union address, Barack Obama hinted at what could become his version of reaching for the moon–he’d like scientists to solve the mystery of the brain.

Obama’s mission would be a heavier lift.

He didn’t go into much detail, other than citing brain research as a stellar example of how government can “invest in the best ideas.” But last week a story in the New York Times by John Markoff filled in a lot of the blanks. Obama’s grand ambition is something called the Brain Activity Map–it’s already being referred to simply as BAM–and it would require a massive collaborative research effort involving neuroscientists, government agencies, private foundations and tech companies, with the truly daunting goal of figuring out how the brain actually generates thoughts, memories and consciousness.

An answer for Alzheimer’s?

The White House is expected to officially unveil its big plan as early as next month as part of its budget proposal. The speculation is that it could cost as much as $3 billion over the next 10 years.

Now, it may seem a strange time to be pitching projects with a $300 million-a-year price tag, what with the budget-hacking sequestration expected to kick in later this week. That’s why even though Obama was light on the details, he did make a point of comparing the brain-mapping mission to the Human Genome Project–a major research initiative financed by the federal government to map all of the genes in human DNA. It ultimately cost $3.8 billion, but it reached its goal two years early, in 2003, and through 2010, according to an impact study, returned $800 billion to the economy.

No question that BAM could have a profound impact in helping scientists understand what goes on in the brain to cause depression or schizophrenia or autism. And it certainly could be a boon to pharmaceutical companies that have spent billions, without luck, to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Since 1998, there have been more than 100 unsuccessful attempts to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s, which by 2050, is expected to affect 115 million people around the world.

It’s all about the tools

Clearly there are plenty of medical reasons to try to unravel the brain, but what, realistically, are the prospects? Sure, brain scans have helped scientists see which parts of the brain are more active during different types of behavior, but that’s a 30,000-foot view. It tells them next to nothing about how individual brain cells transmit information and even less about how neural networks transform that into behavior.

In recent years, researchers have made big strides in understanding how the brain is organized through the Human Connectome Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health. But that’s designed to create more of a static map of neural connections.

The next crucial step is to be able to see, in real time, how information is processed through those connections and which different neurons become part of that process. Or as Harvard biologist George Church, one of the scientists who proposed BAM in a paper last year, has explained it: “We don’t just want to see the wires, but also the messages going over the wires.”

The key is how quickly technology can be developed that will allow scientists to follow a thought process by recording every blip of every one of the thousands, and possibly millions, of neurons involved. Current technology enables them to record the activity of roughly 100 neurons at a time, way too small a slice of the neural network to help explain much of anything. But, as Greg Miller noted in a recent piece on the Wired website, several cutting-edge biological or nano-tools are in the works, including one that could “pack hundreds of thousands of nanowire electrodes into flexible sheets that conform to the surface of the brain and eavesdrop on neurons with minimal tissue damage.”

Is bigger really better?

A lot of neuroscientists will be thrilled if BAM gets funded. But not all. Some have already pointed out that you really can’t compare it to the Human Genome Project, nor the mission to the moon, for that matter. Both of those endeavors, while very challenging, had clearly definable goals. But how do you identify success for BAM? Would being able to record the activity of hundreds of thousands of neurons really explain how thinking happens? No one really knows.

Other scientists are concerned that BAM, with its high profile, could drain dollars from other neuroscience research. Some writers have even raised the specter of mind control, particularly since one of the government agencies that would be involved is DARPA, the Defense Department’s agency that funds experimental technology.

Gary Marcus, writing in the The New Yorker, makes the case that a project like BAM might be more effective if it wasn’t so monolithic. He argues that it should be broken up into five smaller projects, each one focused on a different aspect of brain function.

But he also warns that should Congress balk at ponying up the money for a major neuroscience project, it runs the risk of sparking, ironically, a brain drain. In January, a group of European countries committed more than $1 billion to their own huge neuroscience endeavor called the Human Brain Project , which will try to simulate all the processes of a brain within a computer.

Writes Marcus:

“Whether it meets its grand goal or not, the European project will certainly lead to a significant number of smaller scientific advances. If the U.S. doesn’t follow suit, we will lose our lead in neuroscience, and will likely be left playing catch-up in some of the biggest game-changing industries on the horizon, like human-level artificial intelligence and direct brain-computer interfaces–even though both fields originated in the United States.”

Brain teasers

Here are some other recent findings from brain research:

  • Of mice and men watching mice: Researchers at Stanford were able to follow the brain activity of mice in real time after lacing their brains with fluorescent proteins. They were able to watch which parts of their brains glowed as they ran around a cage.
  • Does that mean a bird can get a song stuck in its head?: And a team of scientists at Duke University found that birds that can sing and mimic sounds have genes in their brains that can turn on and off in ways similar to human brains.
  • She lights up a womb: For the first time, MRIs of developing human fetuses showed communication signals between different parts of their brains. Scientists at Wayne State University in Michigan hope their research will lead to early treatments for autism and ADHD.
  • Nothing yet, though, on how foot gets in mouth: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, had mapped the process of speech, laying out the neural network that makes it happen, from the nerves that control the jaws, lips and tongue to those that manipulate the larynx.
  • Talk about a protein boost: There’s a biological explanation for why women talk more than men. Studies have shown that women speak an average of 20,000 words a day, while men average about 7,000. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience last week, it may be because they tend to have higher levels of a protein in their brain that’s been linked to verbal communication.

Video bonus: A BBC journalist gets a tour of the wiring on his own brain.

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