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Wham BAM: Obama’s brain map aims are laudable, but laughable

Recently, I wrote a sceptical article for The Conversation on the subject of new proposals for computer mapping of the brain. The two top contenders are the European Human Brain Project (HBP - which has…

Plans are afoot to map the brain, but the scientific methods of US scientists involved may be too ambitious. shutterstock.com

Recently, I wrote a sceptical article for The Conversation on the subject of new proposals for computer mapping of the brain.

The two top contenders are the European Human Brain Project (HBP - which has just received €1 billion of funding) and the American Brain Activity Map project (BAM) - recently announced by President Obama - but with no specifics as to funding yet.

But this may all be about to change. A short article authored by twelve of the biggest names in American neuroscience and published this morning in Science outlines for the first time some of the specific aims of the BAM project.

HBP versus BAM

From reading this short outline, it seems the BAM project will be a little different to the HBP.

The HBP claims it will build a computer model of the human cerebral cortex - the outermost sheet of brain tissue, commonly known as “grey matter” - so that we can study the human mind via computer simulation within 10 years.

The HBP will focus heavily on technological development in the area of recording and influencing neuronal activity in the brain.

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At the present time, it’s possible to record from only a limited number of neurons simultaneously - perhaps 100 at most - and the BAM team believe they could develop new technologies to increase this number up to tens of thousands within five years.

They hope that after 15 years it will be possible to monitor up to one million neurons simultaneously – enough to study the whole brain of a zebrafish, or a couple of areas of cerebral cortex in a mouse.

While the ambition is laudable, there are many who believe it is still in the realms of science fiction. It is very hard to imagine what sort of technology could monitor a million neurons in a zebrafish brain that is only a few millimetres long.

BAM … now here are some specifics

It’s notable that one of the authors of the report is the formidable Karl Deisseroth of Stanford. Deisseroth is a brilliant engineer and psychiatrist who recently invented optogenetics, a way of controlling the firing of genetically-altered neurons with laser light.

The BAM team apparently thinks technologies such as this can be scaled up to control thousands of neurons at once. The data generated by thousands of neurons would be massive, and a major part of the project will focus on computer technologies that could collect, store and analyse this.

Another goal of BAM is to develop nanoscale probes to gather data from neurons. It’s hard to imagine what this really means, but I presume it refers to tiny molecules that will be recognisably altered when a neuron fires.

Once again this sounds exciting, but it’s certainly well beyond the technological horizon at present.

The stated aim of BAM is to be able to understand the function of large brain circuits, in the hope we will be able to apply this knowledge to the understanding of chronic disease in the brain, as well as informing us on the processes underlying human cognition and behaviour.

Heady conclusions

The tone of the Science paper is a little more cautious than the initial media releases, which is comforting, but the targets are still the neurological equivalent of proposing to set up a human colony on Jupiter.

How brain mapping might work.

If the rumoured US$3 billion over ten years is going to be spent, I would prefer it to be directed toward saving the human race from destruction through global warming – a possibility that is not in the realm of science fiction!

My assessment is that BAM, if lavishly funded, could develop some amazing new technologies, and all of neuroscience will benefit from these tools.

But I still find it hard to swallow the claim by the authors that BAM will:

put neuroscientists in a position to understand how the brain produces perception, action, memories, thoughts, and consciousness.

My own brain mulls this over and, sadly, returns with the same response every time: if only!