Seeking to do what the Human Genome Project did for genetics, the race is now on to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity. In the United States, the Obama Administration recently announced its plan of a decade-long scientific study which will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and thereby gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately consciousness.
Across the world, the European Union has also announced its plans to map the human brain in an ambitious undertaking involving universities, medical, pharmaceutical and technology companies called The Human Brain Project. The Swiss-led effort seeks to construct a “silicon-based” supercomputer simulation using the best research about the inner workings of the brain.
The US strategy will mirror more closely the goals of the Human Genome Project as applied to the brain by endeavoring to gain a more unified understanding of the brain’s multiple levels of organization, from genes to cognition. Brain research holds the key to development of technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to discover new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses. Moreover it also holds the potential for advances in the field of artificial intelligence and computing.
The advent of new technology that allows scientists to identify firing neurons in the brain has led to numerous brain research projects around the world. Yet the brain still remains one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time.
Composed of approximately 100 billion neurons, 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. Normally this has been done through invasive techniques using physical probes into the brain itself. In June, however, in the journal Neuron, six leading nanotechnologists and neuroscientists proposed a number of new approaches for observing the brain’s firing. The new techniques would allow for a much more complete understanding of the brain and do it less intrusively.
One possibility proposed was to use fleets of molecule-sized machines to measure and act as sensors of brain activity at a cellular level. Synthetic DNA would act as the storage mechanism for recording brain activity. The difficulty arises, however, in finding the “ghost in the machine” – how does the sequence and firing of neurons actually cause consciousness?
Mapping and understanding the human brain presents a dramatically more significant challenge than mapping the human genome. The rewards for making the effort, however, should be rich indeed.
Please find below a video outlaying The Human Brain Project. We love your comments, please feel free to leave them below: