brain

In April 2013 President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – committing 100 million dollars to brain research. The goal of this initiative is to accomplish with the brain what the Human Genome Project accomplished with the human genome.

The BRAIN project came after a similar, and larger, initiative in Europe – the European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP), which was given 1.3 billion dollars in funding. The HBP came under some controversy this summer when neuroscientists complained about how the money was being awarded.

The serious commitment to brain research on both sides of the Atlantic reflects the general recognition that the brain is an important and complex organ (arguably the most complex thing we know about in the universe) and there is tremendous opportunity to reap benefits from new research.

The comparison to the Human Genome Project is quite deliberate. The HGP is generally perceived to have been incredibly successful, the biological equivalent of announcing that we will send people to the moon by the end of the decade, then doing it.

There is also a PR downside to such big projects, however, and that is premature or unrealistic hype. The HGP came with it the promise (implied or explicit) that once we mapped the human genome countless disease cures would soon follow. That kind of translational research, however, is unpredictable and time consuming. We likely will see the benefits of the HGP, but they will come 1-2 decades later than the expectations created by the hype.

Also, now scientists are talking about mapping the proteome – a list of the proteins that the genes code for. Also, the field of epigenetics is exploding, studying the systems that regulate the expression of all those genes. Reality usually turns out to be more complicated than we think.

Right now we are also in the early-hype phase of the various projects to map the human brain, with most articles mentioning cures for Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. What emerges from efforts to map the brain will depend upon what kind of research is actually done. This was the focus of the recent HBP controversy.

Research might focus, for example, on neuroscientific studies to map specific circuits in the brain, literally mapping the “connectome.” Related to that are efforts to computer model the connectome, essentially creating a virtual human brain. Also related but distinct are efforts to understand human cognition, how those circuits we’re mapping actually function. The BRAIN project includes research focusing on neuroengineering, or machine-brain interfaces for research and to treat neurological injury or disability. Neurophysiology focuses on how the cells of the brain function biologically. Finally, translational research tries to take this basic knowledge and use it to cure diseases or enhance neurological function.

Whenever there are millions or billions of dollars to be awarded, there will be arguments over who is more deserving of the funding. The HBP protest was essentially from neuroscientists who feel that more money should be given to their research into mapping the brain. They felt that too much money was going to computer scientists to create a virtual model of the brain, and that the project was becoming more of an IT project than a neuroscience project.

While they are still working out this controversy, the BRAIN project has taken the approach of spreading out research funding in all of the above areas, including large and small innovating research projects. A recent editorial in Nature praises this approach:

The US BRAIN Initiative has the chance to get the concept back on its feet. Success will probably be down to a careful balance between focused order and innovative chaos — much like the organ itself.

Conclusion

It will probably come as no surprise that I (as a neurologist) am excited about the various brain-mapping initiatives. I also agree that success will depend on striking a careful balance.

In general, more funding for scientific research has a dramatic positive effect. However, there is always a delicate balance between funding research and controlling research. It is obviously reasonable to direct funding toward specific research goals, such as mapping the brain. If the funder, however, tries to micromanage how that goal is achieved, then this can distort the direction of research and actually be counterproductive.

In any massive research project like the various brain mapping initiatives, a balance between top-down order and bottom-up chaos does seem like the best approach. Part of this is balancing basic science and translational science. If research funding shifts research prematurely into finding a cure today, at the expense of basic science, then progress can actually slow. We also do not want to prematurely pick winners and losers, but fund a variety of valuable approaches and let the science sort itself out.

In brain mapping research in particular, I also think there is an interesting synergy between various approaches. Neuroscientists mapping circuits and neuroscientists understanding cognition need each other. We need to understand how the brain is wired up in order to fully understand the basic units and interactions of cognition, and we can only really understand the function of those circuits (which is partly used to map them) if we understand what circuits there are and how they connect. The functions of those circuits are also influenced by many physiological components.

Efforts to create a virtual brain depend largely on neuroscientists mapping the circuits (otherwise the computer scientists will have nothing to model). At the same time, computer simulations can be a valuable tool for mapping and understanding those circuits.

Any one aspect of brain mapping research is dependent on and will be enhanced by all the other aspects of brain research. And of course, at the end of the day we want therapeutic and practical applications, and that requires specific research.

Let the controlled chaos of innovation take hold in as many ways as possible.

 

 

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.