Reigh LeBlanc

US government to back massive effort to understand the brain

We have details on what’s being proposed, and what the research will tell us.

by John Timmer – Feb 20 2013, 4:30pm EST

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is preparing to launch biology into its first big project post-genome: mapping the activity and processes that power the human brain. The initial report suggested that the project would get roughly $3 billion dollars over 10 years to fund projects that would provide an unprecedented understanding of how the brain operates.

But the report was remarkably short on the scientific details of what the studies would actually accomplish or where the money would actually go. To get a better sense, we talked with Brown University’s John Donoghue, who is one of the academic researchers who has been helping to provide the rationale and direction for the project. Although he couldn’t speak for the administration’s plans, he did describe the outlines of what’s being proposed and why, and he provided a glimpse into what he sees as the project’s benefits.

What are we talking about doing?

We’ve already made great progress in understanding the behavior of individual neurons, and scientists have done some excellent work in studying small populations of them. On the other end of the spectrum, decades of anatomical studies have provided us with a good picture of how different regions of the brain are connected. “There’s a big gap in our knowledge because we don’t know the intermediate scale,” Donaghue told Ars. The goal, he said, “is not a wiring diagram—it’s a functional map, an understanding.”

This would involve a combination of things, including looking at how larger populations of neurons within a single structure coordinate their activity, as well as trying to get a better understanding of how different structures within the brain coordinate their activity. What scale of neuron will we need to study? Donaghue answered that question with one of his own: “At what point does the emergent property come out?” Things like memory and consciousness emerge from the actions of lots of neurons, and we need to capture enough of those to understand the processes that let them emerge. Right now, we don’t really know what that level is. It’s certainly “above 10,” according to Donaghue. “I don’t think we need to study every neuron,” he said. Beyond that, part of the project will focus on what Donaghue called “the big question”—what emerges in the brain at these various scales?”

While he may have called emergence “the big question,” it quickly became clear he had a number of big questions in mind. Neural activity clearly encodes information, and we can record it, but we don’t always understand the code well enough to understand the meaning of our recordings. When I asked Donaghue about this, he said, “This is it! One of the big goals is cracking the code.”

Donaghue was enthused about the idea that the different aspects of the project would feed into each other. “They go hand in hand,” he said. “As we gain more functional information, it’ll inform the connectional map and vice versa.” In the same way, knowing more about neural coding will help us interpret the activity we see, while more detailed recordings of neural activity will make it easier to infer the code.

As we build on these feedbacks to understand more complex examples of the brain’s emergent behaviors, the big picture will emerge. Donaghue hoped that the work will ultimately provide “a way of understanding how you turn thought into action, how you perceive, the nature of the mind, cognition.”

Read more: US government to back massive effort to understand the brain | Ars Technica.

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