Thursday, March 7, 2013

Clarifying BAM

A new white paper is out in Science Express today, written by many of those involved in the Brain Activity Map project (BAM).  It's paywalled, so I thought I'd share some initial key quotes from it and my reactions:

First, they seem highly aware of the criticisms - born of the comparison to the Human Genome Project - that BAM had vague goals.  Here they make directly explicit what was a bit fuzzy beforehand:

The BAM project is essentially a technology-building research program with three goals: (i) to build new classes of tools that can simulta-neously image or record the individual activity of most, or even all, neurons in a brain circuit, including those containing millions of neu-rons; (ii) to create tools to control the activity of every neuron individually in these circuits, because testing function requires intervention; and (iii) to understand circuit function. 

So, yes - this IS just tech dev.  Will be interesting to see if the "But this isn't a moon shot!!!!!!" critics will chill out after this.  Probably not.

Next, they have scaled back their ambitions.  No longer is it even mentioned that in 15 years research could be progressing towards primates (among those, humans).  Instead, they restrict themselves to the following timeline:

Within 5 years, it should be possible to monitor and/or to control tens of thousands of neurons, and by year 10 that number will increase at least 10-fold. By year 15, observing 1 million neurons with markedly reduced invasiveness should be possible. 

Note that human brains have 90 billion neurons.  They're talking about, at best, getting to a large chunk of mouse cortex in 15 years (still no easy feat), which should inure them to some of the criticism based on infeasibility/unreasonableness.

And among the model organisms they will use prior to mice:
Invertebrates such as the worm, fly, or leech are ideal for testing new technologies, where the results can be compared to extensive, growing bodies of data on the functions of identified neurons and smaller-scale circuits.

(I study leech neuro... it's pretty cool that the leech gets a shout-out here, as it's usually not on the shortlist of invert experimental organisms [that stops at worm and fly].  Bit of an oversight, though, that they omit the crab stomatogastric ganglion, as Eve Marder is also involved in this).

Next, there's a lot of blahblah about connections to human clinical work and diseases and such.  Lots of "may lead to" sentences and whatnot:

We believe that tools and knowledge created by the BAM project may lead to new approaches to rebalance disordered networks and treat [strokes, cerebral palsy, amyotrophic lat-eral sclerosis, or spinal cord injury].

Finally, there's another statement designed to soothe the critics:

We believe this initiative should be funded by a partnership between federal and private organizations. It is essential that those funds not be taken away from existing neuroscience initiatives, which we view as crucial. In addition, data from the BAM project should be made immediately public and accessible to all researchers.

So in sum, the new white paper doesn't add all that much - although it does clarify their goals and tighten up the proposal in response to criticism.  There're no new details about the "brain observatories" idea that's floated around in some press and interviews.  There's no new details about how the money will be structured.  And the biggest question still remains unexplored:

Will Congress even want to fund this?

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