President Obama made big news in the neuroscience world last week when the New York Times revealed his administration’s plan for a Brain Activity Map (BAM) project. Although the details of the project have yet to be announced, it appears to be an attempt to “do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics,” as the Times reporter put it. A flurry of articles followed the initial report, as journalists and commentators debated the value of such a project, compared it to a similar initiative recently launched by the European Union, and argued over what exactly a large-scale, long-term, government-funded neuroscience research program should entail.
From what we know so far (there has as yet been no official announcement, but one will likely be made within the month), the BAM project will involve a coordinated effort among scientists in both government and private research organizations to comprehensively map brain activity. A proposal for such a project was put forward by several leading U.S. neuroscientists in the June issue of Neuron, and now appears to have acquired government backing. The goal articulated in the Neuron proposal is to advance our understanding of the brain by simultaneously monitoring activity in the millions of neurons that make up a complete neural circuit. The authors argue that many neural phenomena can only be understood as emergent properties arising out of the activity of large ensembles of neurons. As a result, the sort of data neuroscience research currently generates – recordings of the activity either of single neurons or of whole brain areas, and maps of the physical, but not the functional, structure of neural circuits – is of limited use in determining how electrical activity in the brain becomes the sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and behaviours it produces. A new approach to neuroscience is needed, according to these researchers, in order to crack the neural code and produce a comprehensive account of nervous system function.
To achieve these goals, technological as well as conceptual leaps will have to be made. The Neuron proposal suggests many possible technologies that might contribute to the BAM project. These include nanoparticles such as quantum dots and nanodiamonds, which could be used to measure voltage changes or magnetic fields in the brain, as well as new statistical and computational approaches to analyzing the vast amount of data the project will produce. The authors even propose using the information-storage capacity of DNA to record activity in the nervous system by constructing synthetic neurons that would gather data from living tissue and store it in their synthetic DNA.
Quite an ambitious project, by the sounds of it, and one that will take us into realms heretofore only dreamed of in sci-fi stories. What to make of this proposal, then? Scientists have responded with a variety of opinions. Neuroscientist David Eagleman praised the allocation of federal funds to such a project and highlighted the important implications it will have for mental health diagnosis and treatment, artificial intelligence, and innovative technologies. Psychologist and commentator Gary Marcus, by contrast, questioned the project and argued that modeling the entire brain – either by creating a computer simulation, as the EU proposes, or comprehensively recording brain activity, as the U.S. will attempt – is an over-ambitious goal, and that we should instead focus our efforts on specific questions about brain function. Other scientists have stated that the conceptual basis of the project is faulty, and there are also serious concerns about whether it is practically feasible.
I’d agree with the skeptics that the notion that we will achieve complete understanding of how the brain works anytime soon is far-fetched. Nevertheless, both the U.S. and EU projects hold promise for dramatically advancing our knowledge of the brain and spurring the development of the technologies we use to study it. Although it is ambitious, the proposal outlined in Neuron is specific and concrete in its goals. It does not claim that its end product will be a complete explanation of human brain function, but rather aims to produce a systematic, comprehensive description of the brain’s activity at circuit level. Such a description will undoubtedly contribute to many fields, from medicine to AI. And those contributions do not depend on the completion of the project in the 10 year time frame currently set out for it – even partial success will mean enormous strides in both research findings and technological developments.
Nevertheless, it will be important to recognize the limitations of this project and to ensure that the government, public, and scientific community view it realistically. It is all too easy for such an initiative to be blown out of proportion in the mainstream media, even in reputable publications like the New York Times. Indeed, until I read the original proposal in Neuron, I was skeptical about the project. Neuroscience is a tantalizing field: because its subject is the organ from which everything we think, feel, and do arises – in effect, the biological basis of the entire human experience – it is tempting to think that neuroscience research will one day allow us to understand ourselves. But even if neuroscientists manage to produce a complete account of brain function, it will only ever be a scientific description – an experimentally tested, third person perspective on the brain. Such a perspective is incredibly powerful, but it is just one perspective. Other disciplines, from history to philosophy to literature, offer alternative ways of looking at the human brain and what it does. And when it comes to deciding how we as a society want to use the findings of neuroscience, those other perspectives may come in handy. (For a more eloquent articulation of this point, see the epilogue of Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The whole book is well worth a read, but the epilogue in particular makes a convincing case that science is, and always will be, only one of many possible perspectives on the human brain.)
This argument was well made by columnist David Brooks in a recent editorial on the limitations of using scientific data to solve problems and make choices. As Brooks argues, even the flood of data in which our modern world is awash cannot effectively incorporate many factors that are key to human decision making. For example, data has difficulty taking account of the social and historical context in which we make decisions. At the end of the day, data is a tool that we can use to guide our choices, but it does not provide the decisions themselves. The BAM project will produce enormous quantities of data (indeed, one of its biggest challenges will be storing and managing huge data sets). The question of what we will do with that data is as important as the scientific questions themselves, and provision should be made to address it. The authors of the Neuron proposal emphasize that the BAM project must foster dialogue between scientists and members of the public on the ethical and other issues this research will raise. If the U.S. government backs the project, it should allocate resources to promoting this dialogue as well as to the research itself.
The official announcement hasn’t even been made, yet already the BAM initiative has sparked heated debate on the scientific and social implications of such a project. Stay tuned as scientists and commentators add their two cents to the discussion – it’s bound to just keep getting more interesting.