The Brain Activity Map project could be the next big federal life science research endeavor, with no less a goal than the mapping of the entire living brain and all its neuronal activity. Like the Human Genome Project of the 90's, the not insignificant financial outlay is being presented as an investment that will net even bigger returns, both in terms of new technology and a vastly increased understanding of the mind. President Obama is expected to include the multi-billion dollar, decade-long funding in his upcoming budget proposal, and neuroscience research was a topic he addressed specifically in his recent State of the Union address.
[Image courtesy of nodes3D at BrainMaps.org]
What distinguishes this brain project from other neuroscience studies going on around the world is, first of all, that it will be coordinated and have a single goal: to map all of the neurons in the human brain at once. Not only is that far more than anyone has done to date, but it is only recently that the technology has emerged that may make it possible, thanks to nanoscience advances and the vast capacity of modern computer systems. The project differs from a current NIH effort that is mapping the static human brain.
Of the major players who are emerging in connection with the Brain Activity Map, several are located in California: at UC San Diego, Berkeley Labs, and CalTech. Those scientists and their East Coast colleagues published an important article in Neuron last year, The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics, which seems to be the blueprint for the federal project. The six authors, also mentioned in a New York Times article recently, include:
- Ralph J. Greenspan, Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UCSD
- Miyoung Chun, the Kavli Foundation
- A. Paul Alivisatos, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
- Michael L. Roukes, California Institute of Technology
- Rafael Yuste, Columbia University
- George M. Church, Harvard University and the Wyss Institute
Dr. Church was an important member of the Human Genome Project team (and the subject of a recent blog of ours). Of the finances involved in the proposed brain project, Church is quoted in the Times as saying:
“The Human Genome Project was on the order of about $300 million a year for a decade. If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won’t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck.”
[George Church of Harvard, courtesy of the New York Times and Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters]
In addition to NIH funding, the NSF and DARPA will also be involved in the Brain Activity Map project. Besides potential disease treatments that could evolve from the project, understanding the activity of the entire brain would almost certainly advance artificial intelligence work.
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