Billions of pounds to map billions of neurons

Dana Smith
March 7, 2013

A lot of money is being spent right now to ‘map the human brain’.  In the last month, both the European Commission and U.S. president  Barack Obama have pledged to give billions of dollars to fund two  separate projects geared towards creating a working model of the human  brain, all 100 billion neurons and 100,000 billion synapses.

The first, the Human Brain Project,  is being spearheaded by Prof Henry Markram of École Polytechnique  Fédérale de Lausanne. Together with collaborators from 86 other European  institutions, they aim to simulate the workings of the human brain using a giant super computer.

To achieve this, they will work to compile information about the  activity of tons of individual neurons and neuronal circuits throughout  the brain in a massive database. They then hope to integrate the  biological actions of these neurons to create theoretical maps of  different subsystems, and eventually, through the magic of computer  simulation, a working model of the entire brain.

Similarly, the Brain Activity Map Project,  or BAM! (exclamation added because it’s exciting), is a proposed  initiative that would be organized through the United States’ National  Institutes of Health and carried out in a number of universities and  research institutes throughout the U.S. BAM will attempt to create a functional model of the brain  – a ‘connectome’ – mapping its billions of neuronal connections and  firing patterns. This would enable scientists to create both a ‘static’  and ‘active’ model of the brain, mapping the physical location and  connections of these neurons, as well as how they work and fire together  between and within different regions. At the moment, we have small  snap-shots into some of these circuits, exposing the function of  different brain areas and how these cells communicate, but on only a  fraction of the scale of the entire brain. This process would first be  done on much smaller models, such as a fruit fly and a mouse, before  working up to the complexities of a human brain version.

BAM proposes to create this model by measuring the activity of every  single neuron in a circuit. At the moment, this is done using deep brain  techniques, a highly invasive process that involves opening up the  skull to implant electrodes onto individual cells to read and record  their outputs. Understandably, this is only done in patients already  undergoing brain surgery, and is a slow and expensive process. Thus, the  first task of BAM would be to develop better techniques to acquire this  information. Research into this field is already underway, and exciting proposals  have included nanoparticles and lasers that could measure electrical  outputs from these cells less invasively, or even using DNA to map  neural connections.

Neither project has directly acknowledged the other, but it is  thought that the recent announcement of the U.S. proposal is a response  to the initial European scheme launched earlier this year. And while  there are distinct differences between the two initiatives in how they  will acquire and store the raw information, as well as how they plan to  build their subsequent models, the two projects overlap significantly.  Both have the potential to better illuminate how exactly the brain  works, and each ultimately hopes to provide us with a clearer picture of  not only normal brain functioning, but also what happens when these  processes are disrupted. Scientists and doctors could then use computer  models to simulate dysfunction involved in neurological or psychiatric  disorders, such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. This would also open up  possibilities for investigating better treatment options, as well as  drastically cutting down on the expense and risk currently involved in  clinical drug trials for psychiatric and neurological disorders.

However, there is a long list of obstacles  these projects must overcome before we get too excited, not the least  of which are the 100,000,000,000,000 connections that need to be  measured and modelled. That’s over one million times as many neurons as  there were genes to map in the Human Genome Project, the closest  approximation to the current endeavours. Additionally, while there was a  clear end to the human genome, the ambition of making a human  connectome is both much larger and much less well defined. Indeed,  neither proposal yet has a definitive end-goal, and no one is clear on  what the final product will look like.

For the Human Brain Project, the collaboration of over 80 different  labs across Europe will also be a significant challenge. By  collaborating rather than competing, the capacity for productivity and  innovation in this and future projects is far higher. However, it will  be extremely difficult to manage differences in laboratory methods and  communication, not to mention egos, between these institutions.

Another major concern for the American proposal is funding. With the  financial crisis, fiscal cliff and federal sequestration of recent  months, the U.S. economy (and Congress) do not have a very good track  record at the moment. And it is hard to believe they are going to  approve a multi-billion dollar project when they cannot even agree to  continue funding for health care, education and military spending.  Private companies including Google and Microsoft, as well as charities  such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Allen Institute for  Brain Science have signed on to the project, but the bulk of funding  will still have to be provided by government institutions.

In his State of the Union  address, President Obama alluded to the Brain Activity Map Project, and  tried to head-off the inevitable financial protests to it by invoking  the Human Genome Project,  which cost $2.7 billion to complete but has reportedly produced a return  of $140 to every dollar spent. This was manifested through  pharmaceutical and biotechnology developments, as well as subsequent  start-up companies. This turnover has the potential to grow even further  through future reductions in health care spending from medical  developments, and the hope is that BAM will produce similar high  returns. However, the question remains as to whether this investment  could be better spent elsewhere, such as improving the medical system,  research for drug treatment developments, or health education and  prevention programs. Some in the scientific community are also worried  that already limited funding to other fields of research will be slashed  in order to subsidise the project.

Despite these concerns, it is undeniable that if these programs were  to succeed they would be spectacular achievements in scientific  research, not unakin to the discovery of the Higgs Boson or even the  first space expeditions of the 1960s. Many believe that the human brain  is the final frontier for medical research, and it will remain to be  seen whether these brain-mapping projects will enable us to finally  understand the wild and intricate workings of our own minds.


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Dana Smith