In his State of the Union address on February 12, 2013, President Obama announced a proposal for the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project. The ambitious initiative is meant to advance neuroscience the way that the Human Genome Project has revolutionized genetics. Following the announcement, I simultaneously felt the thrill of a national endorsement for [easyazon-link asin=”0137155166″ locale=”us”] neuroscience [/easyazon-link] research (Did someone teach the President the secret neuroscientist handshake? Does he marvel at the notion that that the brain is `who you are’?) and the pangs of skepticism over the project plan. Estimates suggest that this proposal will ask for $300 million per year in federal funding for 10 years. So what types of research will be advanced if congress passes this $3 billion proposal? What kind of `BAM’ for the buck can we expect?
The best predictive outline for the BAM project comes from an article in the science journal Neuron written by a panel of neuroscientists. The experts sketch out a plan to create a map of the brain’s wiring by studying functional connections between neurons. The idea is similar to creating an airline flight map. You can fly from JFK to LAX direct, but you could also fly through any number of other cities to get there. Neurons are responsible for transmitting information within the brain, and presumably information can be communicated either directly (non-stop flights) or indirectly (layovers) through a series of interconnected neurons. The BAM project aims to illuminate which cells are connected and how these neuronal networks contribute to complex brain functions and, perhaps, even human [easyazon-link asin=”1907317295″ locale=”us”] perception [/easyazon-link] and consciousness.
Why is this plan so ambitious? Well, for being a 3 lb meatball, the human brain is extraordinarily intricate. The brain contains billions of neurons that connect with each other through trillions of dynamic synapses. The BAM project will require development of novel tools and nanotechnology to allow neuroscientists to capture the electrical activity of large networks of neurons in the brain simultaneously. Importantly, this novel approach to studying the brain bridges a critical gap in current research. Today, the majority of research is conducted at one of two levels. Neuroscientists are able to record the precise electrical activity of individual or small groups of neurons (think needle in a haystack). On the other end of the spectrum, researchers study broad activity of brain regions using techniques like functional MRI (think field full of haystacks). The BAM project strives to integrate the single-cell resolution of the former approach with the broader perspective offered by the later approach. This new level of investigation opens up exciting possibilities for understanding the unique, emergent properties of neural networks, which cannot be understood by conventional approaches to neuroscience.
The BAM project is certainly exciting. The project is exhilarating for neuroscientists and should be exciting for anyone interested in understanding how their mind works. The experts from the Neuron article suggest that a network-level understanding of neural connections can offer new solutions to long-asked, still-unsolved questions. Despite years of research, scientists still have a poor understanding of neurological diseases that have no clear pathology, like schizophrenia, autism and depression. Similarly, we still can’t scale up knowledge of single-cell responses to simple stimuli, like bars of light, to the level of understanding human differences in visual perception (e.g., what do you think the color red looks like?). A new, unified approach to studying neuronal networks could reveal the mysteries of normal brain function and help scientists understand what goes wrong in disease.
From this neuroscientist’s perspective, the most clear and exciting breakthrough of the project could be the development of integrated brain-machine interfaces with immediate applications for smarter, more sensitive prosthetics. Elucidating the functional language of neural networks through activity maps could unlock a new world of possibilities for direct communication between the human brain and computers or other devices.
Enthusiasm and futuristic excitement aside, BAM is undoubtedly high-risk, high-reward. The proposed [easyazon-link asin=”B00A2UQUXY” locale=”us”] technologies [/easyazon-link] required to generate this map of brain activity does not currently exist. Moreover, the proposal focuses on studying organisms with simple nervous systems like flies and worms. How will new research on these simple model organisms be scaled up to understand the human brain? Even if neuroscientists can successfully apply their findings to understand complex network activity in a human brain, are all human brains the same? Hopefully research over the next 10 years will help to answer these questions.
Image: Katie Kopil