Some of the nation’s top scientists got together at the University of Minnesota recently as part of an effort to outline one of the most ambitious medical research projects in history: mapping the connections of the human brain.
The so-called BRAIN initiative made a splash when President Obama announced it earlier this year, but it’s impossible to overstate the difficulty of the challenge. An average 3-pound brain has about 86 billion neurons, each with some 10,000 connections. Those connections would produce “terabytes of data per patient,” said Dr. Sydney Cash, a Harvard University neurology professor. That’s the equivalent of several thousand copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica — for one patient.
Since Obama put up $100 million to fund the project, and asked Congress to fund it going forward, a committee advising the director of the National Institutes of Health has been meeting periodically to draft a preliminary report that will help guide the project. It’s due this month.
At the U, the discussion focused on the current state of brain research. John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown University, summed it up nicely. He noted that cellphones have made a lot of progress since Motorola introduced them in the mid-1970s. “We haven’t,” he said.
No one disputed his assessment. David van Essen, professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University, said we have accurate maps for just under a third of the cerebral cortex. “We’ve got to improve these maps,” he said.
That will require new technology: new electrodes, wireless networking tools, data analysis methods, and especially, new imaging tools.
That’s where the U is poised to become a major player. Kamil Ugurbil, a member of the NIH advisory committee, runs the U’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, which awaits delivery the most powerful MRI machine in the world capable of scanning the human brain.
“We’re no longer thinking of the human brain as a bowl of soup … but as a circuit board,” said Dr. Helen Mayberg, professor of psychiatry, neurology and radiology at Emory University.