Obama's Brain Activity Map Needs a Compass

By Brad Dickerson

My summer experiences during childhood are filled with memories of preparing for long road trips around different parts of the country. In some of my earliest memories, my father would take out a map, pointing out the routes we would be following in the coming days and weeks. I could not begin to wrap my mind around their intricacy: state roads leading to major highways and cities I had never heard of with names I could not pronounce.

But my father indicated where our house was, and I was able to follow the markings made by his highlighter to our destination. These early lessons taught me that simply having a map cannot tell you where to go. The route you take is highly dependent on your journey.

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President Obama has set a plan for U.S. scientists to create a “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) over the next decade. Such a project is obviously of tremendous value to both the scientific and global communities. Its findings will not only contribute to the ongoing study of how the brain functions, but will likely prove to be a long-term resource for the treatment of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, or ALS.

Though BAM reaches toward a noble goal, our limited understanding of even the simplest brains suggests the results from this project will be more confusing than we could hope to anticipate. As a neuroethologist, I am interested in how the brain and nervous system control behavior. Typically, when determining which animal is the most tractable to work with, I consider simple behaviors that are amenable to experimentation. As a result, I have a bias toward animals such as leeches, flies, crabs, and moths, with the occasional soft spot for owls or mice. These creepy-crawlies fly, communicate, learn and otherwise experience the world in ways that we can barely imagine, using a small fraction of the neurons we have at our disposal. The study of these model systems has yielded tremendous advances in neuroscience, yet, we still have infinite questions.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama’s goal of mapping how the human brain is connected will not necessarily allow us to infer how those neurons function. Many scientists who work on the stomachs of lobsters would gleefully inform the President that a group of as few as 14 neurons can instantly control different behaviors depending on the context. But, when the problem is scaled up to that of the human brain, the mind truly boggles.

Evolutionary context should also be kept in mind. The human brain, in its current version, is (for lack of a better phrase) “what works.” The same sensors in our fingertips that keep us from touching a hot stove are also sensitive to being placed in extremely spicy sauces. What we see in our movie and television programs are simply a series of images played at a speed fast enough that we cannot distinguish individual frames. Our brains have not necessarily evolved quickly enough to handle our modern lifestyle.

Therefore, I would suggest that Mr. Obama, in addition to helping facilitate a general model of the brain, push for more funding devoted to basic neuroscience research. The insights we gain from studying a broad array of animal brains can help us understand how the human brain is unique. In a world where many people interact with computers daily, these results could also reshape our thinking on the design and function of prosthetic limbs, robots, and even our everyday household devices and appliances.

These advances will not be accomplished only by assembling an immense atlas of the connections made by different neurons. That approach will likely lead to disappointment.

Instead, we must seek to integrate this knowledge with everything else we know from neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Indeed, for Mr. Obama's Brain Activity Map to be truly revolutionary, it needs a proper compass.

Brad Dickerson is a biology graduate student at the University of Washington. He can be contacted at bdicker@uw.edu.

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