Monday, February 18, 2013

BAM! Let's do neuroscience!

Holy crap we're going to map the Entire Human Brain!!

Well... sort of.  I have to admit, as someone who does "connectomics", my first thought when I saw the headline in the NYTimes was "I'm going to have a job!"  So I won't be too critical...  but I thought my regular readers (that's you, Mom and Dad) might want a little background info about what's going on with this "Brain Activity Map Project" that Obama is apparently going to propose.  It's being compared to the Human Genome Project, and is being framed entirely from the human perspective:

The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.
Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses.
Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.

Jeez!  Heady!

So what's the deal?

Well the gist of it is that a bunch of really famous neuroscientists all got together and figured out how to fund what they want to do anyway.  I've read the outlines of their proposal as it stood last June (you can find it here) and I'll list briefly what they want to do:

  • Do calcium imaging of neuronal circuits
  • Do voltage imaging of neuronal circuits
  • Make new multiunit electrodes to record neuronal circuits
  • Play with some new ideas for recording from neurons by transiently attaching synthetic cells to neurons and using their DNA to record spike trains (another post on this part later...)
Basically, they want to do neuroscience.  Recording neuronal circuits, understanding their properties, linking them to structural connectomes, linking them to behaviors, understanding disease states... that IS neuroscience.  BAM = neuroscience funded outside the normal NIH pool.

It's clear that humans weren't an original focus either.  Rather, they state a modest progression: starting with C. Elegans and Drosophila, moving to the mouse retina and maybe, if they're lucky:

Finally, it would also be interesting to consider mapping the cortex of the Etruscan shrew, the smallest known mammal, with only a million neurons.

The Etruscan shrew!!!

Only in the most aspirational terms are humans mentioned:

For a long-term goal (15 years), we would expect that technological developments
will enable the reconstruction of the neuronal activity of the entire neocortex of an awake mouse, and proceed toward primates. We do not exclude the extension of the BAM Project to humans, and if this project is to be applicable to clinical research or practice, its special challenges are worth addressing early.

But!  Who knows how that's changed since June, when their article was published.  They obviously got someone important to listen (Collins?) and eventually Obama heard it too.

And from Obama's point of view, this makes great sense.  He's always looking for small ways he can do stimulus these days - this is one.  Everyone loves solving brain diseases.  And wouldn't that help slow the long-term growth in health-care costs?

Of course, there will be objections, including one that could give Republicans an opening.  The ethics of mind control.  More on that here :-)

Works Cited:


  1. I hope this is what it is - I mean, you know my (adamc's) love of invertebrate neuroscience. Ten years to image a drosophila brain sounds awesome to me. But do you really think that Congress will appropriate $3 billion for that?? I'm pretty pessimistic, but hey, who knows

    1. I don't think Congress is in a mood to appropriate anything, unless it's somehow getting taken from the NIH budget writ large (which hopefully it isn't). They will have to be sold on human human human, just like neuro in general is. Everyone likes thinking they're curing alzheimer's.

  2. PS I now have a new life goal of starting an Etruscan shrew lab

  3. The benefactors of current research and innovation in neuroscience--which is everyone, technically--are invigorated by this announcement. The peeps in the brain tumor world are grasping at straws for "cures" to slow our maladies.

    While brain mapping may not lead to an answer for my needs, I am stoked this may help my brain tumor brothers and sisters in the future.