The Brain: The Final Frontier?
March 10, 2013

The Brain: The Final Frontier?

Last month, I wrote an article for redOrbit that detailed the president’s hopes to embark on the next major scientific endeavor of our time. President Obama specifically cited advancement on the new Brain Activity Map as being key to allowing the U.S. and, by extension, the rest of the globe to remain on the cusp of scientific advancement.

The human brain consists of billions of neurons that help us to form our thoughts and perform actions based on those thoughts. But for now, we have no direct understanding of how these minute neurons are able to translate our thoughts into the actions we perform.

Much like the Human Genome Project, which aimed to map out the genetic make-up of every living person on Earth, the Brain Activity Map is set to answer the question of why it is we do what we do. Scientists published their proposal for this daunting task in the journal Science Express this week. They claim the completion of the project will lead to treatments of brain disorders like epilepsy, autism, dementia, depression and schizophrenia. They also state paralyzed individuals could, as a result of this project, regain movement.

“We don’t actually understand (how circuits of neurons) generate all these interesting behaviors we have, like speech and language and thoughts and memory,” said John Donoghue of Brown University’s department of neuroscience.

“What we’re hoping is that as the tools develop — and they will continue to develop — we have additional insights that will lead to better medical devices.”

In light of the U.S. government’s recent willful abdication to measures of austerity through sequestration, Donoghue and colleagues are anxiously awaiting the decision of the federal government to approve funding for this project. Scientists associated with the project, however, believe total funding of the project should be undertaken by both governmental and private organizations.

Despite the $85 billion sequestration, academics are hopeful the government will be able to commit funding to the endeavor. This is due, in no small part, to President Obama’s comments in his recent State of the Union address. In it he said, “If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas.” One idea he specifically mentioned was the work of scientists “mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.” President Obama finished strong in his pitch stating, “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”

Work that has already been completed has benefited paralyzed individuals and those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. However, it is clear this work is still in its infancy. As an example, Donoghue is currently working on a project called BrainGate2. The mission of this initiative is to reconnect the brain to the body in patients with paralysis. Via a small sensor implanted in the brain, the person’s thoughts about moving are translated from brain to movement signals.

So far, researchers have demonstrated how paralyzed patients can move a computer cursor simply by thinking that manipulates a robotic arm. The next step is to adapt this technology to the patient’s own arm or, in the case of amputees, to a prosthetic limb attached to the patient.

For now, the movement of the robotic arm is slower and less coordinated than an actual arm. Scientists state the Brain Activity Map project could improve these movements in the future. According to Donoghue, “If we truly understand the code of how the brain does that, we could reproduce it.”

Much like the Human Genome Project, the benefits of the Brain Activity Map will not be limited only to humans. In fact, there is much work already going on in animal models. Animal models are used because they allow for the testing of devices before they have been deemed safe for human trials.

“Within 5 years, it should be possible to monitor and/or to control tens of thousands of neurons, and by year 10 that number will increase at least 10-fold,” Donoghue and colleagues wrote in the Science article. “By year 15, observing 1 million neurons with markedly reduced invasiveness should be possible.”

Advancement on this scale will lead to scientific and technological innovation on a scale not imaginable today. And much like the Human Genome Project before it, the cost may seem prohibitive, but it is important to realize that for every dollar spent on the Human Genome Project, the economy received $140 in return.

Image Credit: VLADGRIN / Shutterstock

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