The brain! The whole brain!

When you receive a text at 6am regarding a New York Times article on a new neuroscience initiative, you know there is excitement in the air.  Indeed: my facebook feed is littered with fellow neuroscientists all posting the article with a comment invoking some variant of “huh?” (also: yay, more money!).  You see, the nyt article – which is all we have to go on at this point – is full of meaningless gibberish that makes it all sound like the reporter doesn’t know anything about neuroscience and is just forwarding bits of whatever press release they received.  Hell, it includes the quote, “the advent of new technology that allows scientists to identify neurons firing in the brain has led to numerous brain research projects around the world.  Yet the brain remains one of the greatest scientific mysteries.”  I shit you not, the article actually says that.  And it’s a bit of a funny scoop, because one of the NIH directors sounds a bit surprised by it all; you see, there’s already a human brain map-building project.

So what’s going on?  It’s not quite clear, but a recent article by the scientists that are linked to the project may shed some light on the whole matter.  Although the reporting makes it seem like we’re getting ten years worth of funding to understand the active behavior of the human brain, the review article ends on this note:

For midterm goals (10 years), one could image the entire Drosophila brain (135,000 neurons), the CNS of the zebra fish (1 million neurons), or an entire mouse retina or hippocampus, all under a million neurons. One could also reconstruct the activity of a cortical area in a wild-type mouse or in mouse disease models. Finally, it would also be interesting to consider mapping the cortex of the Etruscan shrew, the smallest known mammal, with only a million neurons. For a long-term goal (15 years), we would expect that technological developments will enable the reconstruction of the neuronal activity of the entire neocortex of an awake mouse, and proceed toward primates.

And remember, these are (somewhat optimistic) goals.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they were accomplished in the given time frames, but nor would I be at all surprised if we totally failed to reach them.  Remember: make a goal, and estimate how much time it should take.  Now double it, and you’ve got a better estimate.

Now, remember we have not yet imaged the whole C. elegans nervous system (302 neurons); they hope that in ten years we might be able to image the whole fly brain, or maybe a mouse eye.  I’d love it if that was the target of the initiative but I don’t really think that politicians share my love of invertebrate nervous systems.  What about humans?

We do not exclude the extension of the BAM Project to humans, and if this project is to be applicable to clinical research or practice, its special challenges are worth addressing early. Potential options for a human BAM Project include wireless electronics, safely and transiently introducing engineered cells to make tight (transient) junctions with neurons for recording and possibly programmable stimulation, or a combination of these approaches.

Which sounds like a lot of great technology development, but I’m not sure how we go from there (and through clinical trials) to gathering gobs of data.

Although more money in neuroscience is great – yay money – it introduces some pretty serious worries.  Foremost among these is: where does the money come from, and how much will it crowd out other, legitimate projects?  And that is a serious, serious worry; but I’m more worried about ten years down the road.  Let’s say this happens, money floods the field and we’re all very happy researchers.  Now it’s ten years later, and what do we have to show for it?  What happens if we don’t get any working data from humans?  Does neuroscience become the next target of a politicized governmental waste campaign?

And will we wake up from the money hangover to find that grant acceptance rates really can get that much lower?


Alivisatos, A., Chun, M., Church, G., Greenspan, R., Roukes, M., & Yuste, R. (2012). The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics Neuron, 74 (6), 970-974 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.006