The most mysterious organ

Mapping the pathways in the brain
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2013

"Here is this three-pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand, and it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space," said neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran in a 2007 TED Talk on the human brain. "It can contemplate the meaning of infinity and it can contemplate itself contemplating on the meaning of infinity."

What it still has trouble contemplating, however, is how it actually works.

"As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom," President Barack Obama said earlier this year. "But we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

Which is why, on April 2, President Barack Obama announced the launch of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, a 10-year, multi-billion-dollar effort to better understand that convoluted and mysterious — if relatively lightweight — organ.

Next year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will allocate a combined $100 million toward the development of brain mapping tools, high-tech imaging techniques, and molecular-scale probes that can sense and record activity within neural networks. Private sector partners like the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Howard Hughes Medical Center in Virginia have committed tens of millions more toward similar ends.

The long-term goal is to better understand how the brain functions, which in turn will help us tackle brain-related problems such as autism, Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression, as well as various neurological disorders.

"[T]hink about what we could do once we do crack this code," Obama said at the White House press conference at which he unveiled the initiative. "Imagine if no family had to feel helpless watching a loved one disappear behind the mask of Parkinson's or struggle in the grip of epilepsy. Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home. Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct and triggered by what's already happening in the patient's mind. What if computers could respond to our thoughts or our language barriers could come tumbling down? Or if millions of Americans were suddenly finding new jobs in these fields — jobs we haven't even dreamt up yet — because we chose to invest in this project?"

Obama and others have compared the BRAIN Initiative to another sweeping scientific mega-effort: the Human Genome Project, which officially began in 1990 and was completed in 2003. That project cost $3.8 billion over 13 years; in his speech, Obama claimed that "every dollar we spent to map the human genome has returned $140 to our economy — $1 of investment, $140 in return."

THOUGHT INTO ACTION

Neuroscientists have already made great strides in studying how the brain operates. We know that the brain contains about 100 billion neurons (give or take a million) that send and receive signals based on internal and external stimuli. There are researchers at work on the Human Connectome Project, which aims to build a network map of those myriad connections. The BRAIN Initiative would go one step farther by somehow capturing the activity within those neural circuits — essentially explaining how we constantly and fluidly transform thought into action.

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