Brain map seeks to unlock mysteries of the mind

Within 5 years, it should be possible to monitor and control tens of thousands of neurons, scientists say.

Story highlights

  • Brain Activity Map project wants to study brain in great detail
  • This could lead to treatments for paralysis, Parkinson's and other brain disorders
  • Budget cuts may affect funding, but scientists are working with existing resources
You have a brain with billions of neurons. You have thoughts, and you do things because of those thoughts. But how do tiny cells translate into thoughts and actions?
The Brain Activity Map initiative is seeking answers to that question. As described in a proposal published online Thursday in the journal Science Express, a group of prominent researchers is proposing a large-scale effort to create new tools to map the human brain in unprecedented detail. This could lead to treatments for brain disorders such as epilepsy, autism, dementia, depression and schizophrenia, as well as ways to restore movement in paralyzed patients.
"We don't actually understand (how circuits of neurons) generate all these interesting behaviors we have, like speech and language and thoughts and memory," said John Donoghue of Brown University's department of neuroscience.
"What we're hoping is that as the tools develop -- and they will continue to develop -- we have additional insights that will lead to better medical devices."
Donoghue and his colleagues are eagerly waiting to see if the federal government will approve new money to pump into the project; the recent spending cuts known as the sequester could affect that prospect. But the scientists' proposal states that the project should be "funded by a partnership between federal and private organizations," and they're already beginning to ramp up their collective efforts, according to George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, who is one of the key minds behind the project.
There are already indications of federal interest. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in February, said, "If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas," and alluded to scientists "mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's." Along with talking about drug development and materials science, Obama stated, "Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation."
Fixing and manipulating the brain
A big goal of the initiative is to create ways of stimulating neurons that are less invasive than what's currently available, said Church.
There is already research being done on brain implants. Parkinson's disease, for example, is being treated with deep brain stimulators, electrical devices in the brain that restimulate specific circuits of neurons that have become faulty.
Donoghue is working on a project called BrainGate2, where scientists are developing technologies to reconnect the brain to the body in patients with paralysis. Researchers implant a small sensor -- about the size of a baby aspirin -- in the motor area of the brain. The sensor picks up a person's thoughts about moving, and transforms brain signals into movement signals.
Through this technology, researchers have demonstrated that patients can move a computer cursor by thinking and manipulate a robotic arm as if it were their own.
A next step will be to connect to the person's own arm or -- if a person has an amputated limb -- to a prosthetic limb that they could control with thoughts.
So far, the movements of the robotic arm don't seem as natural, coordinated or quick as a real arm. That's because scientists do not yet understand th