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Researchers seek funds to map human brain

The team of researchers, which includes a Brown professor, appealed to the White House

A team of scientists, including Director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science and Professor of Neuroscience John Donoghue ’79, released a proposal Thursday that clarifies the goals and methods of the Brain Activity Map in the journal Science. The project has generated media buzz since February, when the New York Times broke the news of the “decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain.”

“This is really a bunch of scientists making a proposal to the government that we should take on an activity like this, of focusing on understanding how the brain works,” Donoghue said. “We know a lot about how neurons work as individual cells, we know a lot about how it works as a group … but the actual way it works, we don’t understand.”

The paper proposes three goals: the development of new tools to record activity from large groups of individual neurons, the development of tools to control individual neurons and the creation of systems to store and analyze the data collected that will enable scientists to “understand circuit functions.”

“Within five years, it should be possible to monitor and/or to control tens of thousands of neurons, and by year 10 that number will increase at least tenfold. By year 15, observing one million neurons with markedly reduced invasiveness should be possible,” the researchers wrote in their proposal.

“The goal here is to acquire some fundamental understanding,” said David Sheinberg, professor of neuroscience, who was not part of the group that wrote the proposal. “It’s a starting point for a lot more science.”


Breaking the news

The idea for the project was formulated in November 2011, when a group of scientists met in England and began talking about the “gap in our knowledge in understanding the brain,” Donoghue said. Their meeting led to a publication in the journal Neuron, which detailed a potential plan for mapping neurons in the human brain.

Donoghue joined the project in May, and he and other scientists began conversations with the White House. The government expressed interest in the project, and the group expected to hear a decision from them in March or April, he said.

But before the decision was released, New York Times reporter John Markoff pieced together the story from clues in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address and a tweet from the National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, Donoghue said.

Obama emphasized the importance of investing in science in his address. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation,” he said, according to Markoff’s New York Times article.

During the State of the Union Address, Collins tweeted, “Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU.”

The Times article referenced the original paper in Neuron. “But the problem is that the concept of what we are trying to do matured a lot over the years,” Donoghue said. “There was sort of a view that came across in the Neuron paper is that we had to study worms, and then flies, and then mice,” before eventually being able to understand the role of each cell in the human brain, he said.


A grand plan

The goal of recording the activity of every neuron in the human brain simultaneously is too “grandiose” and not achievable, Donoghue said, but building an incremental understanding of the functions of smaller networks will “drive more and more advances.” Creating complete maps of animal brains is also not necessary to fully understand the human brain — neuroscientists, including his BrainGate research team, are already working to understand human neural networks, Donoghue added.

Whether the government decides to fund the project will determine the logistics of the research, Donoghue said. “We envision the BAM project as an open, international collaboration of scientists, engineers and theoreticians, throughout academia and industry, with work carried out both by individual laboratories and in new collective efforts,” the researchers wrote in their proposal.

“The one thing that we proposed is that they don’t take money away from anybody,” Donoghue said. It would be ideal to preserve the investigator-driven grant model in which individual labs propose projects, he added.

Barry Connors, professor of neuroscience and chair of the neuroscience department, said science functions most productively when individual scientists follow their instincts. Often, “completely impractical, strange scientific passions turned out to be the roots of revolutionary things,” he said.

The BAM project is “maybe a little too directed,” Connors said.

He added that it is still unclear whether the project is practical. “Is this something that there will be new resources for? Or are we talking about carving out from the increasingly few resources? Are we going to take money away and throw it at this grandiose idea?”

Donoghue said he hopes the project will bring new money to research institutes, adding that Brown is “perfectly set up to be a major contributor to the BAM effort.” His labs and others at Brown are already asking the kinds of questions the project hopes to answer, including how the brain achieves higher functions, Donoghue said.

Many people, including Obama, have compared a large-scale neuroscience research project to the Human Genome Project, which led to a complete decoding of the human genetic sequence. But that analogy may not be accurate, Sheinberg said.

“There is no Watson and Crick for the brain,” Sheinberg said. Molecular biologists understood how to process pieces of DNA, while neuroscientists still do not have a clear set of rules that explain how neurons give rise to complex thoughts, despite knowing how individual neurons operate.

Current neuroscience relies on either very localized views of the brain through methods like single neuron recording, or a more global view of the brain through methods like functional magnetic resonance imaging, Sheinberg said. “This project is about the inadequacy of both of those methods to meet at the level of how the brain really works,” he said. “It presents some serious, serious challenges.”


Next in neuroscience

If the project succeeds, it could change the nature of neuroscience research and education, Donoghue said.

“It’s a map that if we could have access to it, we could begin to understand the principles by which it operates and furthermore understand the principles by which it might break down,” Sheinberg said.

In addition to revealing more about brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, the project could lead to the development of more health-related technology, along the lines of the cochlear implant and the BrainGate technology that enables paralyzed people to control robotic limbs with their minds via neural implants, Donoghue said. It may help the development of “smart technology” like self-driving cars or airplanes, he added.

The project could also contribute to a “fundamental understanding” of the brain that informs social policy, like education, Donoghue said. For example, the project might enable scientists to identify children who are visual and auditory learners. They could be put in classrooms tailored to their learning style “based on our understanding of the brain, not a guess,” he said.


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