The first step to cracking the code of the human brain is to find the right people for the job, says Cori Bargmann – one of two neurobiologists leading the initial phase of an ambitious US project to map the brain.
Unveiled by the White House last week, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (dubbed BRAIN for short) will study the human brain with the aim of aiding treatment or finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other psychiatric disorders.
“The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought,” the White House said in a statement about the $100 million project.
“These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behaviour.”
But where does one begin when trying to unpick the mysteries of the mind?
Bergmann, as one of the two leaders of the BRAIN’s scientific “dream team”, believes that before her team can solve a single mystery of the human mind, it needs to build the scientific “infrastructure” to be able to ask the right questions.
For her the ultimate goal is to decode brain activity in a way that is useful to researchers studying the complex organ. Highlighting this, as President Obama reiterated, the project isn’t promising a cure but rather equipping scientists with the tools needed.
From trauma injury, to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, disorders and diseases affecting the brain cost Americans close to $500 billion annually, according to the country’s National Institutes of Health.
Bergmann’s colleague and fellow leader of the BRAIN initiative William Newsome says there are exciting times ahead for science, comparing the project’s ability to excite the public to the 1960s moon exploration.
“I believe that brain science will be to the 21st century what quantum physics and DNA molecular biology were to the 20th century,” Newsome told reporters.
“The brain is the most mysterious and complex entity in the universe, and I think that new technologies that have developed within the last five years give us a shot at cracking open the problem of the brain in ways that previous generations of scientists never dreamed,” he added.
However both Bergamnn and Newsome cautioned that the map of the brain is less likely to be an atlas and more like an online traffic video, because: “the brain is never the same in any two people, and it’s not the same in one person at two different times.”