Mapping the Human Brain

BrainDuring his last State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama briefly touched on the idea of the US Federal Government funding a program for a Brain Activity Map (BAM).  Basically, signals sent by every brain cell would be recorded so we can better understand the circuitry of human thoughts, feelings and emotions. (1)  The implications of successfully completing a project like this are enormous – from advances in everything from medicine to artificial intelligence (AI). The project is, supposedly, the next logical scientific progression for the US after the strides we made in cancer research in the 70’s and the human genome project of the 90’s.

Of course, instead of the President selling this program with examples of potential benefits to mankind, the message immediately became about the positive economic impact a program of BAM’s magnitude could have.  For example, for every dollar spent on the human genome project (on which BAM would be modeled) it, “returned $140 to our economy.” .

With some $3.8 billion spent over 13 years, the resulting gene-based boon turned out to be $796 billion in new jobs, medical treatments, increased salaries and other benefits, according to a 2011 analysis conducted for the federal government.

Scientists on the BAM project are hoping for a similar investment from the Feds and an even bigger ROI (return on investment) for BAM.

What was unfortunately not explored by Obama during SOTU is the obvious hope those of us with mental illness or any brain disorder have about a such an initiative.  Perhaps if we can understand the circuitry of the brain, there will be better diagnostics, treatment – and dare we hope – maybe a cure – for brain illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.  Alzheimer’s patients could also reap huge benefits.

After my initial spark of hopefulness faded, it took my medicated brain (I have Bipolar I) a few minutes to process why my gut is telling me this may not be the best way to go.

Before I ‘retired’ to move across the planet and sporadically write a blog, I was an IT Geek in a pretty nifty industry.  So, after blowing the med fog to the side of my brain, the first coherent thought I had was, “Is the present technology anywhere near up to the task?”

After doing just a bit of digging, clearly the answer is, “no.” One piece of tech  needed is the brain imaging tools that would allow scientists to observe cell recruitment functions at the low level necessary to observe circuits firing off feelings, memories, etc.  It still needs to be devised.  That’s a pretty tall order, and a pretty expensive one.  Then there are the systems and software necessary to store, interpret and model the data.  Those are probably in the works in some form or another, but I couldn’t find any evidence that’s truly the case.  It’s not that these technological components can’t be developed.  We have some of the best engineers on the planet in the good ol’ USA.  But, Obama is right.  In the end, it’s all about the money.

Unfortunately, there’s little hope that funding for this project will be approved in March when Congress votes on the 2014 budget. Since Congress couldn’t see their way clear to quickly approve disaster relief for the victims of Superstorm Sandy without arguing over pork and a whole lot of other BS. it’s unlikely a bold scientific undertaking is going to get any cash, especially in this time of austerity and the House being led by the GOP.  Should BAM be approved, under one funding scenario, It’s estimated that 750 labs across the US will lose their grants for other projects. Here’s where the project loses me. Killing off scientific diversity is something I can’t ascribe to.

But wouldn’t it be great if the wheels were already set in motion for a project that would tackle brain mapping so that everything from better understanding of physical and mental illness to advances in AI would be a byproduct?

Wait – there just might be a way we can still look forward to a day when those of us with faulty circuitry can stroll into a Radio Shack for a replacement model.

The Human Brain Project is a one billion Euro effort being coordinated by Switzerland and has a somewhat similar goal to what the US is proposing:

The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. On January 28, the European Commission supported this vision, announcing that it has selected the HBP as one of two projects to be funded through the new FET Flagship Program.

It appears funding is already in place, ramp up is beginning this year and one goal of the program is to create e CERN for the brain.  True, the HBT project is not promising the level of granularity BAM would like to achieve, but you have to admit, the EU is already leaps and bounds ahead in actually beginning their brain program.  The HBT goal seems more attainable as well.  If the US Congress can’t see its way clear to fund BAM, why not begin with assembling all available data on the brain first, and then advance to examining the minutia of brain circuitry and function at a later date?

Overall, this is an exciting time in brain research.  We have some of the best minds (pun intended) on both sides of the world innovating to better understand the most complex organ in the human body.  We are on the verge of creating the technology to do so, and who knows what other purposes that tech could be applied to in the end.  Most importantly, think (pun intended) about how the quality of human life could be improved by better understanding our own brain.

Let’s pretend for one moment that the US Congress does approve funding for BAM and its full steam ahead in the US.  I would really love to see this happen.

Maybe brain research could be the new Friendly Space Race.  The US vs the EU (instead of Russia) and the new territory to be charted instead of the moon is the human brain.  A bit of competition is good, right?  It keeps everyone on their toes and the wheels in motion.  Even if the end goals for BAM and HBP aren’t the exactly the same, having two active brain understanding projects can only turn out to be beneficial in the end.


Brain Map: President Obama Proposes First Detailed Guide of Human Brain Function

Researchers debate wisdom of brain-mapping initiative

HBP – Human Brain Project

1) Nerdier explanation of the BAM project from Wikipedia:

By using new non-invasive methods of electrophysiology derived from nanotechnology, in which synthetic DNA molecules will be used to store and report the sensed activity of single neurons, and combining them with methods of neuroimagingand neuroanatomy, participating scientists hope to map activity of each of the approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain

I LOVE this piece! There are so many exciting implications here (though that nasty paranoia of mine is playing up just a wee bit in my own brain), all of which you covered better than I could, and honestly, Vivien, that is what I love most.

You always bring interesting news with intelligent commentary, but to read this, with so much to it that you are obviously incredibly passionate about — reading about all of this is a million times better when I can read it through your voice. Honestly, very cool. 🙂

(I really did love the information discussed in the piece itself, too — I devour any and all info about the brain I come across — and will probably do a re-read or two. But I meant what I said about you discussing things far better than I am able.)

Hi, Ruby! Thanks so much, really 🙂 I’m so happy you enjoyed it – I loved writing this post. You know what a geek I am…I’m really hoping that something wonderful will come out of at least one of these projects. Check out The Human Brain Project web site. There’s a lot of good stuff on there. Again, thanks so much for the wonderful compliments. You’re too kind, as always. 🙂

In the ninth paragraph, you misspelled “lose” as “loose.”

I totally agree with everything stated in this post, and I’m also excited for brain research. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

I think it’d be nice if the government could fund this sort of project and it could reap so many benefits. But you’re right, they probably won’t fund it, especially with the amount of gridlock and party politics going on these days.

Yes! I hope (if the project gets funding!) the Administration will use programs like this to get more kids interested in careers in Math and Science. Thanks for commenting!

Very interesting read, thanks for shedding some light on this subject that is still unknown to many. I do not however think we should be getting so excited about this…letting the government into our brains? Aren’t they overly present in every aspect of our lives already? I understand the argument here, and it is the same argument used by all scientists. “To better our understanding”. Not intending to offend anyone here, simply my point of view. I am not opposed to scientific research, but when it comes to government, I always try to see beyond what’s being laid out for us…I think there is more to this than trying to cure diseases…

Hi, PeaceWisdom: There’s two sides to everything, isn’t there? I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by a few others in the Bipolar community as well. If the project moves forward, it will be interesting to monitor the frequency and contents of updates the public will be given. Thanks for reading!

Peace I couldn’t agree more. I already don’t agree with our government and politics.. I whole heartedly believe there is much more going on in terms of “government” than what is being said. I agree that the brain is an absolutely magnificent part of life and that there will be some things that computers will be unable to measure. Quite frankly, that’s wonderful! How boring would the world be if we knew every single thing that was going to happen? I’m all for studying and trying to learn as much as we can… but when government gets involved I couldn’t be more wary of the information being tossed out to the public. I do not want my education censored by “people in power.”

Thanks, Sandy! Yeah, I was thinking about what it would take to coordinate a project like this with private funding only. It’s such a massive undertaking. Well, let’s wait and see. There’s that Dutch saying, “In the end, it will all turn out differently than you think anyway.” 🙂

Don’t sweat this. Politicians love to make it sound like they are creating initiatives to study whatever’s the hot topic of the day – AIDS, lung cancer, autism, global warming, the brain, whatever – but we shouldn’t want politicians deciding which scientific questions to answer. We want scientists deciding that.

And that’s basically what does happen. Congress approves a budget for federal granting agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and those agencies award funds based on the merit of scientific grants reviewed by experts and based on scientific impact and probability of a successful outcome. It’s only when Congress or the President ties the hands of these agencies by earmarking funds for a politically opportune program that funds get spent inefficiently.

Urge your representatives to fund basic biomedical science research. Then urge them to leave the details to the experts, ones who are basing their decisions on scientific merit and not political expediency.

Hi, Rapsheetblog: You’ve touched on something I was unsure about including in my post. I admit I don’t follow this Administration’s interest in what it deems ‘scientifically important’ very closely, but the endorsement of BAM seemed to come out of left field. I’m probably wrong, but the first thought I had after discovering there’s a similar initiative in Europe was the Administration needs something to fill the Major Scientific Advances slot on the second term resume, looked at what the EU is doing and decided they could jump on the brain bandwagon as well. (There’s my healthy dose of pessimism for the day:) ) Whatever the case, at least the info about both programs is out there now. Thanks for commenting!

This would be exciting. Could lead in advances in mental illnes, parkinson’s, fighting drug addiction, maybe we could find out what’s going on when someone is in a coma. I love the description of “a friendly space race”. Brain mapping, what an awesome concept.

As someone who has also been diagnosed with Bipolar I (amongst a slew of other diagnoses) and takes enough Seroquel in a day to drop a small horse, I think the first thing we need to do to advance the sciences designed to understand the human psyche is do away with such labels as “bipolar” and statements such as “I have .”

These labels and statements engender a context in which neurological abnormalities are perceived as diseases in the same way as the flu is. I tell you now, most emphatically, that they are not. The flu is a virus, a foreign agent which attacks our body. Bipolar, schizophrenia, and depression are not. They are words which characterize a neurological matrix from which a series of behaviors are given. We do not “have” bipolar, we ARE it.

Sorry if this seems a bit “aggressive.” I do not mean it to be, but these labels limit our ability to understand the true issues behind the challenges people like you and I face. Just food for thought. Either way, I enjoyed the post and I look forward to reading more.

Julien Haller

Hi, Julien: Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. No worries about coming across as aggressive…I am soooo there with you! My Drs, therapists and I have regularly scheduled conflicts over whether I *have* Bipolar or I *am* Bipolar.

I AM Bipolar:

My husband (who does not suffer from mental issues) and I just had a long conversation last night about Bipolar being a part of me, about what is really ‘normal’ behavior and why anyone who is just off-center from what the majority thinks behavior should look like is medicated to the gills and marginalized. It’s frustrating to say the least.

Thanks again – I am very glad you liked the post. Take care & be well.

Great blog post, and congrats on being freshly pressed! It’s so sad that things like come down to money. At least we’re being more open about speaking about mental illnesses, instead of shoving it under the rug so to speak. Let’s hope there are some exciting new developments on the horizon 🙂

Thanks! I think we are getting better with talking about mental illness, although there’s a way to go. There’s nothing really innovative or startling in the pipeline on the pharmaceutical front (as far as bipolar, anyway), so I hope you’re right and there are new developments on the horizon in other areas. Thanks for commenting!

I chose not to add substance with this reply because I want to concentrate on thanking you for your perspective on this issue, which I value greatly. It is very difficult to succinctly cover this huge sea of research and policy which is very excitingly, but also worrying, looming over our future. Best of luck. I am aiming to read through your archives over the coming week (as time permits).

Thanks! This was a fun post to write, but I have to admit, devising a strategy to follow future progress is a bit daunting. So much info in so many places and too little time. Hope to see you again on other posts.

I don’t know about the politics of this initiative, but I wouldn’t be surprised if drug companies aren’t lurking in the background somewhere looking for more opportunities to produce new drugs. I am interested in brain research because I had a sudden alteration in my brain chemistry (37 years ago) which resulted in a ‘brain fog’ like condition, that has not corrected itself (I also have Parkinson’s). I have been on medication in the past and didn’t like it, so I am presently using a natural approach, mostly through diet, to hopefully heal my gut, immune system and central nervous system.

Thank you for this post. Keep up the good work!

Hi, Fred – Thanks for commenting! As you can imagine, drug companies aren’t my favorite. Actually, the whole healthcare industry isn’t something I have a lot of confidence in. I’m sure big pharma is sitting in the background, rubbing their hands together, because at some point research like this will give them new areas of the brain to target. I hope you’re having at least some positive results taking the natural route and can continue without meds. Be well!

That’s what I call a fine article!

Although I believe that brain mapping, even after it functions and fully maps our brain won’t be able to answer many of our most important questions, like where the soul resides. But it is a cool start!

Hi, Ippo – thank you! The science is cool, no doubt. But there are certain questions (like the one you posed) that I just wouldn’t want to know the answer to. Gotta keep some of the mystery in life, right? 🙂

Manic Muses,
Nice work. I’ve also been blogging about the new proposal. Here is my synopsis of the Neuron article:

and my comments:

and an interview with a scientist who helped develop some of the techniques suggested in the proposal:

I appreciate your thoughtful discussion.

Hi, Nucamb, I’m very happy you commented, I clicked through the links you provided and have subscribed to your blog. Fascinating stuff. One thing I am uncertain about is how to keep tabs on BAM as it progresses (or doesn’t). Any suggestions? I’m hoping to read more of your posts in the next day or so. Great blog!

An excellent question. Scientists, like everyone else these days, are struggling with new participatory/open knowledge models. The authors of the BAM Neuron paper did suggest an open data infrastructure, but that doesn’t really address accountability to the public at large.

As a genuine science nerd, I regard brain research as one of the few truly important area of scientific research, important in terms of how it will impact our lives and our perspective on our place in the universe. I place it right alongside the search for habitable planets and life beyond, and the hunt for the ultimate underlying reality of this universe. I also think research on the oceans and climate is important, though that is so darn politicized now.

You bring up an excellent point – it seems that the moment any scientific undertaking is politicized, it is doomed. But, it’s almost inevitable that without exposure, initiatives are doomed anyway because it is so hard to attain funding. What to do? I agree with all of the areas of research you deemed important. That’s why I’m not so sure putting all of our eggs (read: $) into the BAM basket is a great idea. Scientific diversity is too important. Thanks for commenting!

Brain research is what we really need to be investing time, money, resources, etc.

I’ve seen too many people’s lives ruined by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. All of these conditions could potentially be cured or more easily managed if we just knew more. Perhaps even ADD – a condition that has seen an explosion in recent years – could be managed more easily/safely.

The implications for stroke victims are far reaching as well — perhaps we could find ways to stem the cascade that causes irreversible damage, or potentially reverse/assuage the damage that couldn’t be avoided.

Great article. Thanks for sharing!

You’re welcome. There are so many wonderful implications here. I have also seen many people’s lives ruined or irrevocably changed by brain disorders (mine included). I am hopeful that at least in my lifetime there will be some major advances in understanding, if not treatment. Thanks for reading!

This is such an eye opening article and I am so proud of all the intelligent dialogue that has followed…Congrats to you for causing a stir! I agree that it will probably take the government forever to approve and I think once they do. big pharma will taint it like they have with so many other research projects.
I have worked with Autistic children for a long time and it would be exciting if they could re-bridge the communication gaps. I am positive we could learn a lot from the real genius inside!
I suffer severe pain from fibromyalgia and it sure would be nice if my brain could turn off the pain.
I look forward to your future articles.

So this is probably going to get lost in the folds here, but I’m currently a PhD student studying neuroscience, and my colleagues and I don’t see how Obama’s BAM is going to work (at least right now anyways). The techniques required to functionally map the entire brain are very underdeveloped, so even when data is collected at the network level, trying to use it in conjunction with the cellular level data is nearly impossible.

I know there’s currently a project being funded called the Human Connectome Project. What that’ll do for medicine and AI in the future still remains unclear to me though. At the end of the day I think we still have a lot of work uncovering what’s going mechanistically at the cellular level and develop better techniques to look at the network level before we can really say anything meaningful about how it’s all connected.

Yes, the technology is still underdeveloped, but I think at least worth some funding (though perhaps $3B is a bit much). As for the top-down/bottom-up issue, I think there will always be that tension in neuroscience. Molecular researchers think cellular is ungrounded, cellular researchers think circuit people are, and so on up the system. Conversely, top-down researchers think the bottom-up people are missing the forest for the trees. I don’t think that there is any right answer to that question a priori, but I do agree with the BAM proponents that we need at least some more emphasis on systems level thinking (that emergent properties are in some sense irreducible to components). As they rightly argue, this approach has proven quite fruitful in other areas of science.

As for the methodology, I’m pretty impressed with the prospects for molecular recording to radically increase the cell counts for simultaneous recording:

The Human Connectome Project does have the type of funding you’re talking about along with trying to develop the technology more ( I was just trying to simply point out that I feel like BAM is a little redundant with this, and if they want to science to move foward than don’t cut funding to neuroscience (or really, any science in general because it’s way more connected than one might think). You need to understand all of these parts individually if you really want to get at how they’re working in synchrony. It’s definitely a worth-while project (obviously, because I’m studying it myself haha), but I think it’s funny that Obama is trying to start something that’s been in the works for awhile now. Maybe he should subscribe to Nature or Journal of Neuroscience haha =)

Hi, Neuromaste (love the handle, BTW!). I’ve been doing a lot of reading since I wrote this post last week…the more I dig, the more I’m not on board with BAM. If you have the time, would you mail me? manicmuses at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading and commenting – much appreciated.


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