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A whole-brain activity map, and the Obama administration

Last month, the Obama administration announced a plan to fund a huge, decade-long project to simultaneously map the activity of each individual neuron in the entire human brain — the Brain Activity Map (BAM). The project aims to develop new technology to visualize the activity of individual neurons in the same way that fMRI can roughly visualize the activity of the brain at a much coarser scale.

At the beginning of March, the scientists involved published some details in the journal Science about their proposal (Alivisatos et al. 2013). They make it clear that these technologies need to be developed and tested in animals first, first in small vertebrates such as fish and rodents, and then in primates. They also emphasize the need for the scientific community to discuss how these technologies would advance our understanding of the brain and mind.

This proposal is meant to stimulate discussion and debate among scientists and administrators; our role is merely to help catalyze action.

Only about a week after they published this paper, another group published their new method of doing exactly what the BAM scientists propose: visualizing the activity of every single neuron, in a larval zebrafish brain (Ahrens & Keller 2013). Although this is clearly only a first step to mapping activity in other animals, these three events make it clear that the next decade of neuroscience will be full of methodological advances and important discoveries about the brain.


An image of single-neuron activity in larval zebrafish, using light-sheet microscopy. See Ahrens & Keller 2013.

As someone in the scientific and skeptical communities, I love the fact that the president is vocally supporting research and demonstrating that he believes that funding projects is a priority for the United States. However, as Gary Marcus noted online at The New Yorker, having a lot of data about brain activity doesn’t actually tell you how it works. And we would probably get 300,000 petabytes of data each year from the BAM.

The Human Connectome Project, which aims to comprehensively map brain activity using MRI, MEG, and EEG, has already collected a large amount of data–but interpreting this data, and understanding all that it can tell us, is going to take a lot more work. A strong theoretical understanding of these technologies, along with well-developed mathematical, statistical, and computational methods, are all necessary before we can even claim to understand the brain the way we understand the human genome. Even if the Brain Activity Map succeeds in its rather lofty goals, we may not understand much more about how the brain works.

That doesn’t mean that the technology shouldn’t be developed — the recently published single neuron imaging method has the potential to answer a lot of basic questions about how the activity of individual cells create networks of brain activity that encode information — and many other questions. And it’s incredibly cool. The scientists are basically shining high-speed lasers at see-through baby fish, whose brains express a fluorescent protein whenever their neurons fire. That’s AWESOME. But we’re still far away from unraveling how the mind works at a single-neuron level.


Light sheet microscopy setup: lasers shining at fish brains. (from Ahrens & Keller 2013)

I remain hopeful that neuroscientists will make some significant progress, although they probably won’t find the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Neuroscience, like genetics, can only explain so much. Understanding how genes contribute to behavior do not reveal a human “essence” (1). Likewise, linking a behavior to a picture of an active brain does not reveal anything about how your brain works (2). For that, you need some solid theory and some solid experiments to test your ideas. Like other neuroscientists who have commented on BAM, I hope that the Obama administration takes this into account when it decides how to fund and endorse neuroscience projects. The BAM proposal is only way to approach the problem of the brain and mind, and there are plenty of other neuroscientists cracking down on this problem.


(1) For a review on genetic essentialism, see Dar-Nimrod & Heine 2011.

(2) See Weisberg et al. 2008 for a neat experiment that demonstrates how people will believe neuroscience explanations for no reason.

Cited publications

Alivisatos, A.P., Chun, M., Church, G.M., Deisseroth, K., Donoghue, J.P., Greenspan, R.J., McEuen, P.L., Roukes, M.L., Sejnowski, T.J., Weiss, P.S., Yuste, R. 2013. The Brain Activity Map. Science 339(6125): 1284-1285. DOI: 10.1126/science.1236939

Ahrens, M.B. & Keller, P.J. 2013. Whole-brain functional imaging at cellular resolution using light-sheet microscopy. Nature Methods, advance online publication. DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2434

Dar-Nimrod, I. & Heine, S.J. 2011. Genetic essentialism: on the deceptive determinism of DNA. Psychological Bulletin 137(5): 800-818. DOI: 10.1037/a0021860

Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., Gray, J.R. 2008. The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20(3): 470-477. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2008.20040

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!

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