Home' Technology Review : May June 2013 Contents 28
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
What do you hope to map, exactly?
We’ve made great strides since neurons
were recognized [by Santiago Ramón
y Cajal more than 100 years ago] as
the basic functional unit of the nervous
system. We know how to measure the
activity of small numbers of neurons—
up to a few hundred. Using functional
MRI [magnetic resonance imaging],
we also know how to measure the activ-
ities of patches of large numbers of neu-
rons—from 30,000 to one million. But
many critical brain functions involve
anywhere from a few thousand to many
millions of neurons. BRAIN will gener-
ate revolutionary new tools to measure
the brain activities in thousands to mil-
lions of neurons in order to produce a
general theory of the brain.
Why do it?
We want to understand how we rea-
son, how we memorize, how we learn,
how we move, how our emotions work.
These abilities define us. And yet we
hardly understand any of it.
How will nanoscience and nanotechnol-
ogy contribute to the brain activity map?
The brain functions at the nanoscale.
So the tools to study brains must ulti-
mately operate at this level as well.
What’s really going to be needed is the
ability to measure a lot more. Ten to 15
years ago, the time wasn’t right; now,
What would be the benefits?
What’s the point of measuring more if
you don’t understand what it means?
The purpose of BRAIN is not just to
develop tools so that we can read more
neurons; we want to decipher brain
activity. An interdisciplinary network
of scientists and engineers will work to
make new, powerful prosthetics, treat-
ments for devastating brain disorders,
improved educational strategies, and
smart technologies that mimic the
brain’s extraordinary abilities.
Is the Human Genome Project a good
or dumb metaphor for the brain activ-
There are similarities: the scope of
the study, its long-term vision, and
the amount of funding it will require.
What’s dissimilar is the end point. In
the case of the Human Genome Proj-
ect, the end was very clear. As soon as
you sequence three billion nucleotides,
you’re done, right? But for the brain
activity map, it’s probably imprudent
to set a goal to measure the 100 bil-
lion neurons in the human brain. For
one, we may never achieve such a goal;
but more importantly, we don’t know
if a smaller number will provide us the
insights we need.
You also mean we can’t even anticipate
some of the questions that will emerge
from the mapping.
Precisely. We don’t know what we will
learn by measuring and deciphering
a million neurons. What we do know
is what we have already been able to
achieve. For example, John Donoghue
[of Brown University] has a patient who
had a stroke 15 years ago. By stimulating
less than 100 neurons, she could move
the arms of a robot and drink her morn-
ing coffee. A hundred neurons. Imagine:
maybe this patient can walk on her own
if John can stimulate 100,000 neurons!
I’d like to ask a private question, if I
might. What’s the one question that the
BRAIN project might answer that you
long to understand?
I try not to personalize the project, to
Well, that’s why it’s an interesting
What’s most interesting to me is how
our thoughts are molded. Thought
seems such a human thing. We assume
that other species have thoughts, but
our thoughts appear to be more ... com-
prehensive. It’s thoughts that led us—
you and me—to talk about these issues
today. Our thoughts are directly related
to how we memorize, and how we learn,
and how we are able to do so much. But
what’s the basis for this? It’s the reason-
ing side of the brain that seems to me
the most mysterious. But I would think
that everyone has their own opinions on
why mapping the brain is important.
the Brain research through Advancing innovative neurotechnologies
(BrAin) project, which President obama announced in his State of the
Union address in February, will be a decade-long effort to understand
the nature of thought. the project, which inevitably evokes the human
genome Project, will demand billions in research funding and require the
coöperation of many government agencies, universities, and foundations.
miyoung chun, a molecular geneticist and vice president for science
programs at the Kavli Foundation, has been coördinating communication
among those involved since planning began 18 months ago. She spoke to
Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, in march.
4/8/13 11:19 AM
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