Obama unveils project to map the human brain

This Brainbow image shows the core of a dentate gyrus.
This Brainbow image shows the core of a dentate gyrus.
Published Apr. 4, 2013

San Francisco — Scientists who already have led remarkable efforts to explore and describe the complex depths of the human brain will play a critical role in the $100 million brain-mapping project announced by President Obama on Tuesday.

The so-called Brain Initiative, which is being touted as similar in scope to the Human Genome Project, initially will seek new technologies to study brain activity and the trillions of neural connections that rule every human action and behavior. (You can check out our gallery of brain images here.)

Eventually, scientists hope, the project will lead to better understanding and ultimately new treatments for the dozens of brain disorders that plague humans, from Alzheimer's disease and autism to concussions and strokes.

"We are never going to get solutions unless we undertake this kind of effort," said Dr. William Newsome, a Stanford neurobiologist and co-chairman of the working group charged with defining the project parameters for the Brain Initiative.

"The brain is the most complex entity in the universe. And the brain is the source of our personal identity," Newsome said. "That's why we're all so devastated by neurological diseases."

The $100 million will give a "nudge" to the massive patchwork field of neuroscience that has been building over the past decade or two, and focus scientists on creating new tools and reaching shared goals, Newsome said. Part of his working group's first business will be determining what those goals are.

Scientists from every major Bay Area research institution probably will be involved in the project, the full name of which is the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. In addition to Newsome, two other Stanford scientists are part of the working group.

Brain mapping has been of interest to doctors and scientists for at least 150 years, when the earliest neuroscientists developed the concept of the brain as a web of cells, called neurons, connected by electrical signals, or synapses.

The earliest work involved understanding that certain large regions of the brain were associated with sight, hearing or other basic functions. Later, scientists developed techniques for studying individual neurons and how they worked.

In the past decade, exploration into brain function and activity has exploded, as scientists developed new techniques for studying the brain in real-time — using magnetic resonance imaging to capture signals firing, for example, or applying electrical stimulation to parts of the brain while patients underwent surgery.

Now, scientists can study the hundreds of neurons that light up all at once when a person reads a book or watches a movie. Researchers at UC Berkeley and UCSF have made maps of the hundreds of electrical signals that flare in the brain while a person thinks of a simple noun or verb.

"We know about certain areas that generate language or comprehension, sights, sounds, vision," said Dr. Mitchel Berger, chair of neurosurgery at UCSF. "Here's what we don't know — how all of these things are connected together to give us the human being. We really don't know about the connectivity map, how the brain is connected."

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Advances in techniques for studying the brain have produced massive amounts of data that are overwhelming scientists' and computers' computational abilities, Berger and other neuroscientists said. It is hoped the Brain Initiative will bring together computer scientists, electrical engineers and others not remotely involved in biology or medicine to help translate all of that data into useful information.

And there remains a critical need to develop more detailed and less invasive techniques for studying the brain and its maze of neurons and synapses. Scientists who specialize in nanotechnology also will need to be involved in future brain-mapping projects.

Every synapse is, in a way, like the world's most advanced microprocessor, and it may be that the engineers of Silicon Valley are better prepared to understand and study them than human biologists alone.

"Even though the brain is only 1.5 kilograms of matter, it is a vast place," said Stephen Smith, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford who has been studying brain structure and function for 30 years. "It has a hundred-billion neurons or more, a thousand-trillion synapses — and each one is a complex little machine in its own right."

The $100 million devoted by Obama in the 2014 federal budget is not actually a large sum, especially compared to the billions of federal dollars already devoted to brain research, into Alzheimer's or traumatic brain injuries, for example.

But the money serves two purposes: first, to signal that the administration understands the importance of studying brain damage and diseases, and second, to draw scientists from a wide and often disjointed variety of fields to work together on studying complex brain systems.

"We're at that point in neuroscience where if we put a few incentives in place for new teams of people to work together, we're going to change the course of things. And 10 or 20 years from now, neuroscience will look very different," said Newsome at Stanford.

"Sometimes you get a sense that things are on the verge of major change, and all you need is one nudge to kick that change off," he said. "That's the sense many of us have now."