By Erica Dimitropoulos, Senior Staff Editor
If you were in charge of government spending, how would you allocate our funds? Would you put more money into public schools? Restructure the healthcare system? How about a multi-billion dollar project to remap the brain? A few months ago, President Obama announced his plans to invest in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. The project is expected to cost billions of dollars over the course of a decade, and it will be led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).1
But what exactly does “mapping the brain” entail? We currently have the capacity to record the activity of up to hundreds of neurons in action using technology such as magnetic resonance imagining (MRI), electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), and many more. However, these machines are considered low-resolution and too slow to depict detailed neuronal activity. Therefore, the goal of the BRAIN initiative is to trace the function of hundreds of thousands of neurons as they interact, and to understand how each neuronal circuit behaves in time and space to allow us to process information at extraordinary speeds.3 In other words, we want to understand how the brain engages in conversation with itself, or “thinks,” and changes over time.
John Donaghue, professor at Brown University, described our currently technology as “looking at a page of TIME from six feet away…you can get a general idea of what’s going on and maybe read the headline but you can’t [understand] the text.”2 In line with this analogy, he explained how our current intention should not be to take a microscope and look at every ink imperfection of each letter on the page either; “What’s missing is that middle level of analysis” or, in other words, how the brain makes everything come together.2 It is therefore time to create a completely new technology using knowledge from medicine, engineering, computational science, and other disciplines.
It appears that members of the BRAIN team are still debating exactly how the money and time devoted to this project should be spent. Careful planning is certainly important, and direction for such a large task can be hard to find. In fact, mapping the brain is thought to be much more difficult than mapping the genome, for there is no clear endpoint to our knowledge.4 However, although the BRAIN initiative may seem a little far-fetched and underdeveloped, a few years from now we will be closer to understanding the core of our humanity. The benefits of this project are tremendous, as it will help us gain insight on treatments for various neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and the consequences of strokes and traumatic brain injury. Furthermore, perhaps we could even learn how the mind creates and erases memories and apply that information to psychological ailments such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Regardless of these opportunities, many scientists and philosophers argue that the brain is not the mind, and there is a long journey ahead of us in truly understanding how matter can become conscious of itself, or, what exactly makes us human.
- Wadman, Meredith. Obama launches multibillion-dollar brain-map project. Nature News Blog. http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/04/obama-launches-ambitious-brain-map-project-with-100-million.html. Published April 2, 2013. Accessed September 1, 2013.
- Szalavitz, Maia. Brain Map: President Obama proposes first detailed guide of human brain function. TIME Health & Family. http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/19/brain-map-president-obama-proposes-first-detailed-guide-of-human-brain-function/#ixzz2dhj4Y3uy. Published February 19, 2013. Accessed August 30, 2013.
- Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. National Institutes of Health. http://www.nih.gov/science/brain/. Accessed September 1, 2013.
- Insel, Thomas. The NIH brain initiative. Science Magazine. 2013;340 (6133): 687-688. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6133.toc. Published May 10, 2013. Accessed September 1, 2013.