A few years ago NPR reviewed a scientific finding that claimed to uncover a “Jennifer Aniston neuron”. A neurosurgeon had found that a specific set of neurons were repeatedly “firing up” when his fully-conscious patients were shown photos of Jen –not Julia Roberts, Halle Berry or other Hollywood beauties. Don’t worry, upon further investigation all of the stars were found to have their own set of neurons too.
This finding really speaks to the question: Can we identify the purpose and function of every neuron in the brain?
We’re talking about identifying over 100 billion neurons. Show a picture of Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, solve a math problem, or enjoy your morning coffee and pinpoint which neurons fire up and in what pattern.
‘‘New directions in science are launched by new tools much more often than by new concepts. The effect of a concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of a tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained.’’ – Imagined Worlds, Freeman Dyson
The hope to answering questions on the brain is in the hands of what is becoming an increasingly tool-driven revolution as a collaborative, and inter-disciplinary effort.
In March of 2013, Nature (Nature Methods, 10, 6, 2013) reported the work from Karl Deisseroth’s group on the use of hydrogels in brain imaging. In short, the hydrogel monomers are infused into a postmortem brain, and upon initiation, polymerize to form a mesh network of connections throughout the lipids. Researchers are then able to extract the lipids from the brain, while the formed mesh keeps the brain intact and largely undisturbed. This is a critical step because lipids previously prevented optical imaging of an intact brain as high-density cells. This new technique, termed CLARITY, allows for full transparency into the brain and opens up the possibilities in 3D imaging of an intact brain.
This new imaging technique may provide answers to how neurons are fired, which neurons are tied specifically to what images, smells, or other triggers. How are memories formed? What are dreams? What is consciousness? New imaging technologies, such as CLARITY, deliver promise of opening up the black box of the human brain.
Why is this important now?
Ask any scientist and they will tell you scientific breakthroughs don’t come cheap. They require immense support and funding-- often sourcing from the government.
President Obama announced the BRAIN project in April 2013 –just one month after CLARITY appeared in Nature. BRAIN, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, received an initial $100 million. In September 2014 the White House re-invested an additional $300 million. Clearly, there’s interest in tapping into the “human computer”. The funding agencies supplying the big bucks include: NIH, NSF, FDA, IARPA, and DARPA—a total of five federal agencies alongside other private sector commitments. BRAIN’s mission statement is focused on: “how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.”
The US Isn’t Alone:
The European Union also launched a similar initiative, the Human Brain Project. The project was launched in October of 2013 and has a total investment exceeding 1 billion Euros. 113 institutions across Europe are listed as partners in addition to 21 collaborative partners. The 10-year project intends to foster a collaborative effort across disciplines “to achieve a multi-level, integrated understanding of brain structure and function through the development and use of information and communication technologies (ICT).”
The immense funding of this highly collaborative project is quite exciting for neuroscientists and physicists working together to discover the workings of the human brain. Unfortunately, the project has not come without what hopefully will be known as growing pains. Protests from involved scientists arose last summer on issues regarding management and future directions. It culminated in a protest letter delivered to the European Commission. The involved scientists questioned the scope of the goals for HBP and the incredibly high expectations from the yielded results.
The questions of direction and expected results are perhaps the beauty of BRAIN and HBP, as well as their downfall. The mission statements for both these projects themselves can be treated as funding for the overall advancement of scientific discoveries surrounding the brain. This gives science ample room for experimentation and creativity. But it also poses a great challenge: In 10 years, what exactly do we want to have accomplished?
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Nobel-Prize winning nueropsychiatrist Eric Kandel said that unlike the Human Genome Project, this initiative doesn’t have a clear end in sight: “…here, we don’t know what the goal is. What does it mean to understand the human mind? When will we be satisfied? This is much, much more ambitious.”
Unlocking the brain holds the promise of curing and treating neurological and mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia. It also holds the mysteries of emotions, consciousness, memories, and dreams. Maybe the depth of the impacts of these projects matches the scope of the mission statements for both HBP and BRAIN. Or, are these end-points far too ambitious? These projects both have funding at federal levels and with it national, and international, pressures for results to answer perhaps too many questions in very few years. The ambition is to not only image the brain, but to understand how the brain functions at almost every level within the next decade.
Even if project leaders are looking at science through rose-colored glasses their efforts are creating incredible scientific discussion and positions for rising neuroscientists, chemists, engineers, physicists. To continue to ensure funding for projects such as BRAIN and HBP, it’s important that science is a priority for the future political leaders in the United States and Europe. Research is not limited by ideas or desire, but, unfortunately, more often by the financial support it receives.