White House and Scientists Unclear About Precise Goals of BRAIN Initiative

Would you give up a six-pack* to make an activity map of the human brain? Most Americans would probably say yes. However, over six months since President Obama unveiled Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or more simply, BRAIN Initiative, people still don’t know what it is. The government has promised approximately $1 billion over the next ten years for what they call “a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.” Okay, but is that what they’re really selling? Some scientists behind the project say BRAIN is more like a trip to the moon. While advances in medicine and public health are possible outcomes, the real drive is discovery.

Last week the NYU Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness and the NYU Center for Bioethics hosted a conference outlining foundational issues in brain mapping projects across the globe. I was there. Even the neuroscientists, philosophers and legal and ethical experts involved in the projects were confused.  While the speakers reached a general consensus that the goal was to create new technologies and map the brain, when it came to why to do it, how to do it and what will come of it, opinions scattered.

First things first: is this task feasible? We’re not talking about a trip to Home Depot and a few hours hammering wood together to build a flower bed. This is mapping all the connections in the human brain. That’s over 85 billion neurons that make about, and I’m not kidding, 100 trillion connections. And it’s not even the human brain. There are billions of human brains. Which one do we chose? Even more, a lot that we assume about the human brain function is based on animal studies and the idea that the human brain evolved in modules for specific survival functions. Do we morph a mouse and a worm and mix that with MRI data? How? Why? Wait, what?

One proposition to address our lack of knowledge is predictive neuroscience where all the connections in a simulated brain will be established based on what’s known already and efforts to predict what is unknown based on the latter. I may be naive, but what if the parts are unknown because they are inherently different? Then you’re mapping one human brain that isn’t even accurate. Lame.

The fact that our knowledge about the individual pieces of the brain is incomplete and that neuroscience is still in its adolescence was a non-issue for some of the scientists. Disagreements on whether to start from the bottom-up, understanding each piece before the whole or from the top-down, to understand the whole to find the meaning of each piece, were more a reflection of unique world views than anything distinctly academic. To be blunt, it doesn’t matter. The money is there. They’re going to look for emergent properties whether they like it or not. They may not know what they will find, but by god! They will find it.

The rational is scientific discovery with potential benefits, said Cori Bargmann, distinguished neuroscientist and co-chair of BRAIN’s advisory committee.  “There is nothing more fascinating than understanding the human brain,” she said. Brain mapping projects, her colleagues believe, will provide tools and foster collaboration to launch neuroscience to the levels of Physics and Chemistry.  It’s good to take risks, but to go into a cave without any idea of what to look for makes for an inefficient trip to the unknown.

For more reading check out The Scicurious Brain on Scientific American.

NOTE: *If every American tax payer, according to a 2012 article in Forbes magazine, chipped in it would cost a total of $8.20 per person, total, to reach the $1 billion promised over the next ten years. by: JoAnna Klein

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