Brain mapping

NYT raises questions about federal project, science press provides answers

On February 17, The New York Times touched off an anxious debate in the neuroscience community with a front-page article revealing that:

The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

The article was short on specifics. The White House “has been looking to unveil [the project] as early as March,” John Markoff reported, and details, including how much federal funding it would receive, are not final. Obama had hinted at the plan in his State of the Union address a few days earlier, and prominent researchers confirmed that he was talking about a new initiative. But it was unclear whether the individuals Markoff quoted were among the “four scientists and representatives of research institutions,” mentioned at the beginning of his piece, who “said they had participated in planning for what is being called the Brain Activity Map project.”

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is organizing the effort, according to Markoff reported. “The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will also participate in the project,” he wrote, “as will private foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.”

The article suggested that the project would involve developing non-invasive technologies to record activity in the brain’s “roughly 100 billion neurons that each electrically ‘spike’ in response to outside stimuli.” Right now, scientists can only track a small number of neurons at once.

The vagueness of the plan sent some neuroscientists into a tizzy, however, though one that produced a fascinating discussion about the right and wrong ways to go about mapping brain activity. A roundup of reactions on Twitter at The Atlantic Wire revealed that most commentators were concerned that funding would go to one, monolithic research program, rather than an array of smaller experiments. Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in New York, wrote a particularly insightful post about the promises and pitfalls of “big science,” reflecting on the highly (perhaps overly) touted Human Genome Project.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, also wants to see the money dispersed and, in a blog post for The New Yorker, offered the most detailed plan for how it should be done. Arguing that the US should not merely seek to map the brain, as a European project currently underway intends to do, but rather try to understand how the brain connects to behavior, Marcus proposed that:

Rather than putting a huge amount of money into a single project, as the Europeans have, and as the Obama Administration apparently intends, we should endow five separate projects, at a billion dollars each, addressing five of the most fundamental unsolved questions in neuroscience. One project, for example, should focus on deciphering the basic language of the brain. What is the basic element of neural computation? What is the basic scheme by which symbolic information (like sentences) are stored? A second should focus on understanding the rules governing how neurons organize into circuits; a third on neural plasticity and neural development, and understanding how the brain communicates information from one region to another, and determines which circuits to use in a given situation; a fourth on the relation between brain circuits, genes, and behavior; a fifth on developing new techniques for analyzing and observing brain function.

The general media declined to follow-up on the Times’s scoop, but thankfully, with so many people craving specifics, science-news outlets dug in and provided more details in the days that followed.

On February 20, ScienceInsider’s Emily Underwood and Jocelyn Kaiser posted the most thorough account to date of who’s involved in the Brain Activity Map and how the proposal arose. Their piece charts the growth of the idea from a proposal at a meeting in the UK in 2011, to a paper published in Neuron last June, to OSTP’s call in July for proposals for “Grand Challenges” in science and technology similar to the Humane Genome Project.

Most usefully, perhaps, ScienceInsider included a link to the final report from a meeting at the California Institute of Technology in January, at which officials from three government agencies, neuroscientists, nanoscientists, and representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm discussed plans for the Brain Activity Map. The document contains the names of all the participants as well as this synopsis of the project’s mission:

The Brain Activity Map (BAM) project is a concerted multidisciplinary effort to develop and implement new tools to collect and process large-scale brain activity and to change the activity patterns in neurons to test hypotheses for brain function. However, neither amassing immense amounts of neuroscience data nor large-scale simulations are likely to reveal the secrets of the brain without a new theoretical framework for exploring and interpreting the data, and creating a deeper understanding of the brain’s most complex functions.

The document also suggests that “BAM observatories should be set up to parallel those in astronomy,” so there’s a lot to allay concerns that the project will involve the construction of only a simple “wiring diagram” of the brain, or that all the money will go to a single project. Still, much remains to be seen, and ScienceInsider noted that in the early years, a lot of the work might focus on animal models.

As for some of the cutting-edge science involved, Ars Technica’s John Timmer interviewed John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University who has been advising the Obama administration, who “cited three fields that had given him and his collaborators cause for optimism: nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and optical tracers.” Wired’s Greg Miller also talked to Donoghue and provided even more detail on how the three disciplines might factor into the Brain Activity Map.

In a follow-up article that ran on the front page of the Times’s weekly science section on Tuesday, Markoff filled in a lot the details missing from his first piece, but nothing in excess of what had already been revealed.

It would be nice to see the more general-interest outlets pick up the story, of course, but the chances of that happening before the Brain Activity Map’s official unveiling are slim.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , , ,