This is my first post and it will be a long post since it is on a subject that I’m really excited about. I started to be fascinated by the human mind and its capacity when I was a freshman in high school. At that time I used to question, “How do we think? How do we remember?” but mostly, “I know that I know this, why do I not remember? Where did the information go?” Well, little did I know that what seemed like a brief phase of philosophical questioning would end up to be my career! So yes, the BRAIN…
The human brain is one of the most complex structures known. So complex that “a single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth,” says Stephen Smith, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University.
A healthy adult human brain has approximately 86 billion neurons, which is 12 times the total number of people on Earth! Neurons communicate across an estimated 100-500 trillion cell-to-cell connections, called synapses. In fact, the synapse number of a three-year-old is around a quadrillion, which is the total number of ants on Earth! The ability of these neurons to communicate with one another is truly a fascinating. However it is also due to this complexity that we still do not fully know the details of the anatomical and functional connectivity of this massive network.
On April 2013, President Obama and National Institute of Health (NIH) director Dr. Francis Collins announced The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, also referred to as the Brain Activity Map Project. It is a collaborative effort that aims to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain in order to unravel the working mechanism of the human mind.
The BRAIN Initiative is an ambitious long-term project that is estimated to cost more than $300 million a year for ten years. The funds will be used to expedite the development and application of novel technologies to generate a realistic model of the human brain. Neuroscientists are hoping that the data gathered for this project will fill in a critical gap in brain research and illustrate the interaction between single cells and complex circuits both in space and time. This information will then be used to unravel new ways to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.
The inspiration of the BRAIN Initiative came from the largest international collaborative biological project, the Human Genome Project (HGP). The HGP aimed to identify and map the entire human genome, which consists of roughly 3.3 billion chemical units (base pairs), in order to understand the physical and functional significance of each gene. It was a $3-billion Mega Project that lasted 13 years (1990-2013), 2 years less then the 15-year goal. Since then, the outcome of the HGP has been inimitable in identifying the roots of certain genetic disorders as well as the genetic variants that increase the risk of manifestation of certain common diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Apart from its significance for healthcare, the HGP was also economically profitable. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama noted, “if we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar.” This was confirmed by a federal study which claimed that by 2010, the HGP returned $800 billion. Obama also stressed the significance of scientific investment for the establishment of new job opportunities, “now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.” (1)
So where are we now in terms of the realization of the goal? Well, there is a lot to be done! Before neuroscientists can even begin to build a comprehensive map of the human brain’s activity, the necessary tools need to be developed and manufactured. In order to do so, however, the tools need to be first tested on simpler model organisms so that the information gathered from animal testings can be used to then apply them to humans.
Fortunately we do have some experience in brain mapping, but it is limited. The worm C. elegans with 302 neurons and 7,000 connections was the first and only animal with a complete static map of its brain, a connectome. Scientists are now interested in working on the connectome of the fruit fly with 135,000 neurons, then the zebra-fish with one million neurons and then the mouse with 75 million neurons. These studies will surely help pave the way to produce the connectome for the human brain with 86 billion neurons, but it will surely be a huge jump. Even when we accomplish this and get a static map of the human brain, the real challenge will be to produce the activity map and “reconstruct the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits.” (2)
This makes some scientists who are involved in the initiative concerned. They believe the set time frame of ten years to be too short to achieve the end goal. Others are convinced that the allocated amount of funds will not be sufficient and hope that federal financing for the project would be more than $300 million a year. Another possible problem is storage space. Considering the accumulation of a mass amount of brain imaging data, it is predicted that the project will generate about 300 exabytes of data every year (as a reference, the global data volume at the end of 2009 had reached 800 exabytes). Some people think that this could present a technical barrier to the advancement of the project. There are also other issues that might arise as the project progresses, such as the ethical concerns about the data that will be collected.
Despite all of these I am still very excited about The BRAIN Initiative. I am also not sure if the goal of mapping the entire human brain activity map will be reached by 2023. But I do think that we will be much far ahead than where we would have been if it weren’t for such a collaboration and funding. This is an important step in helping accelerate brain research. Be it ten years or twenty years, I am looking forward to days when I will no longer have to experience the clash between my appreciation of human mind’s beauty and the frustration of limitations to know more.
Image source: Flickr