President Obama this week announced a planned decade-long government initiative to draw a comprehensive map of the activity of the human brain toward gaining greater insight into how it works. And according to The New York Times, researchers hope to use information gleaned from the project to better understand the biology behind diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
In his piece, Times writer John Markoff draws a parallel between the proposed project, called the “Brain Activity Map” to the Human Genome Project, a sort of owner's manual for the human body that mapped out every gene, and that was completed in 2003. Following the successful mapping of the human genome, many thought that personalized treatments for genetic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s were right around the corner. This hasn’t been the case; yet thanks to new technology sequencing genomes, researchers are now using large scale studies of familial populations to begin to home in on shared genetic characteristics that play a role in diseases such as Parkinson's.
The “Brain Activity Map" could similarly provide critical information regarding the even more complex structure of the brain. Better understanding the chemical processes taking place in our brain could help researchers to, in turn, learn how these processes are altered by the presence of a neurological disease. This could go a long way toward developing drugs to counteract these harmful changes in brain chemistry.
But mapping the brain won’t be easy. While a single strand of DNA is made up of billions of nucleotides, the brain consists of billions of neurons, leaving it one of the “greatest scientific mysteries.” Explains Markoff:
Composed of roughly 100 billion neurons that each electrically ‘spike’ in response to outside stimuli, as well as in vast ensembles based on conscious and unconscious activity, the human brain is so complex that scientists have not yet found a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons at once, and in most cases that is done invasively with physical probes.
In fact, many scientists believe that mapping the human brain could be significantly more difficult than mapping the genome, says Markoff.
Stay tuned to this space for further developments regarding the planned Obama project, which could launch as soon as this March.