The next decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain has been announced by the White House. The 1990s, known as the Decade of the Brain, was successful in uncovering many insights into dementia, stroke and the use of imaging technologies such as fMRI. But since then, advances in brain imaging, nano-technology and genetics, for example, are making it possible to advance the knowledge of the brain’s 100 billion neurons and how their complex circuits interact. The goal is gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness. Here is an unofficial mission statement:
“The function of neural circuits is an emergent property that arises from the coordinated activity of large numbers of neurons. To capture this, we propose launching a large-scale, international public effort, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies (BRAIN) initiative, aimed at reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits. This technological challenge could prove to be an invaluable step toward understanding fundamental and pathological brain processes.”
The so-called BRAIN project, or Brain Activity Map project, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists collaborating to build a comprehensive map of brain activity, in hopes of doing for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.
Scientists hope to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses. A group of leading scientists from such institutions as the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the California Institute of Technology and Columbia University, speculate that novel understanding and therapies for diseases such as schizophrenia and autism might eventually be discovered. Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.
Composed of roughly 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses that each electrically “spike” in response to outside stimuli, as well as in vast ensembles based on conscious and unconscious activity, the human brain is so complex that scientists have not yet found a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons at once, and in most cases that is done invasively with physical probes.
But a group of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists, including a molecular biologist, a geneticist, a neurologist, a bioethicist, a cognitive roboticist, neuroscientists of various stripes, say they believe that technologies are at hand to make it possible to observe and gain a more complete understanding of the brain, and to do it less intrusively.
In the June issue of the journal Neuron, six leading scientists proposed pursuing a number of new approaches for mapping the brain. One possibility is to build a complete model map of brain activity by creating fleets of molecule-size machines to noninvasively act as sensors to measure and store brain activity at the cellular level. The proposal envisions using breakthrough innovations such as synthetic DNA as a data storage mechanism for the vast amounts of data representing brain activity.
The initiative, costing $3 billion over 10 years, will be organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and will include governmental organizations as The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation as will as private foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
A recent meeting held at the California Institute of Technology, was attended by the three government agencies, including neuroscientists, nanoscientists as well as representatives from Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm.
The project, formally announced in March, 2013 could provide a return on investment to the US economy of many times more than reported for the Human Genome project. According to President Obama in his State of the Union address, “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar.”