Neuroscience, Emeril Style
According to the NYT, the big news in big science is that the Obama administration is proposing a large-scale new initiative to transform neuroscience in the same way that the Human Genome Project transformed genetics. Apparently the plan is to combine resources from the feds and private institutes and include neuroscientists as well as nanotechnology researchers in an effort to understand not just the structure of the brain, but the combined activity of the huge number of neurons that underlie perception and behavior. They call it the Brain Activity Map (BAM). The details of the plan are somewhat murky but it appears that the architects of the initiative are the authors of a paper in Neuron last year that outline just such a project. Since the paper is not freely available (though we would hope that the journal would open it up, considering the current proposal), I should probably provide a quick synopsis.
Here’s the abstract:
The function of neural circuits is an emergent property that arises from the coordinated activity of large numbers of neurons. To capture this, we propose launching a large-scale, international public effort, the Brain Activity Map Project, aimed at reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits. This technological challenge could prove to be an invaluable step toward understanding fundamental and pathological brain processes.
The argument is essentially that what makes brains brainy is the coordinated dynamic activity of thousands or millions or billions of neurons connected together into complex circuits. How these circuits come to embody perception, or produce movement or represent inner states can only be understood, they argue, by monitoring the simultaneous activity of a great many neurons at the same time, ultimately in behaving animals. This approach is required because the connection between patterns of brain activity and behavior is an emergent property of neural circuits that is ultimately not reducible to the activity of individual brain cells. While the traditional approach in neuroscience has been limited to listening in on only a small number of cells (often only one), they argue that new technologies can build on recent methods to allow scientists to scale up from understanding small circuits in “simpler” animals to the larger networks that underlie behavior in mammals.
Their proposal rests on expanding several current technologies and developing some other truly novel techniques. Specifically, they propose extensions of current imaging techniques, which can now follow the activity of hundreds of neurons in rodent brain slices, to allow recording from large numbers of cells in behaving animals. Similar advances in nano-electrodes could also achieve the goal of high density coverage of thousands of brain cells at the same time. As they suggest, these technologies are reasonably mature, but recent research could lead to even more elegant interfaces with huge numbers of neurons.
The timeline they suggest for the BAM project includes three 5-year phases. The first stage, they say, could start with the nematode nervous system (302 neurons) or discrete subsystems in the fruit fly or mouse (consisting of tens of thousands of neurons). Ten-year goals would include systems of 100,000 to 1,000,000 neurons, with an eye toward monitoring activity in all the cells in the neocortex of a mouse within 15 years.
As they point out, building an infrastructure to handle storage and analysis of the massive data sets generated by these techniques would require significant advances in computational neuroscience, while also posing novel ethical and logistical challenges. The direct and indirect benefits of their program would, they propose, provide an economic and scientific return comparable to that of the Human Genome Project, and they recommend an interdisciplinary partnership be funded to work toward their ambitious goals.
And ambitious goals they are. I think they’ve outlined a reasonable roadmap, but the program doesn’t quite have the succinct appeal of putting a man on the moon, or sequencing the human genome. I’ll consider some of the details in a future post.
UPDATE: My comments on the BAM proposal are now here.
UPDATE (2/20/2013): There is a version of the BAM proposal that seems to be open access here:
A. Paul Alivisatos, Miyoung Chun, George M. Church, Ralph J. Greenspan, Michael L. Roukes and Rafael Yuste. The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics. Neuron, Volume 74, Issue 6, 970-974, 21 June 2012