Brain Mappers Show How National Initiative Could Transform Their Studies

Neurobiologist David Van Essen wants to create the equivalent of Google Maps for the human brain. Creating a way to look at a brain's superhighways and major information pathways will help researchers see which areas of the brain are structurally connected and how different areas are used in brain functions, he said.

That information can help researchers have a better understanding how healthy brains work and how to better treat people affected with a wide range of diseases, from Alzheimer's and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to schizophrenia.

"Our understanding of the Earth and our navigation [have been] transformed by Google Earth and the like, and we hope the field of connectomics will lead to an explosion of novel methods of exploring our own brain," said Van Essen, a professor of neurobiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a principal investigator of the Human Connectome Project (HCP).


David Van Essen (top) and
Michael Roukes (bottom) [Kathleen O'Neil]

Connectomics is the study of long-distance neural connections in the body, a field that has grown out of increasingly common non-invasive imaging techniques for studying the nervous system and brain.

Van Essen was one of three researchers to describe brain mapping projects at a 5 June briefing on Capitol Hill, hosted by AAAS with support from the Dana Foundation. The scientists were there to discuss current research, as well as what they hoped to do if Congress approves a major initiative in brain research proposed by President Barack Obama.

The president's proposed 2014 budget includes $100 million to begin a 10-year project to create a detailed brain activity map. The BRAIN Initiative (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) would build on the HCP's map of the brain and take it a step further by allowing researchers to monitor millions or billions of neurons in real time. That would be something like adding the live traffic layer to that Google map of the brain.

Michael Roukes, a professor of physics, applied physics, and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, said that he was one of the researchers who initially proposed the BRAIN Initiative to the president, because building new tools for observing the brain will lead to breakthroughs in neuroscience. New observations will lead to new theories, he said, especially with the funding it would bring for scaling up and standardizing those tools.

Initiatives to monitor the brain's connections and activity in real time may benefit from a new ultra-high resolution 3-D digital reconstruction of the brain, published in the 21 June issue of Science. The new reconstruction improves on the detail shown by all other standard brain maps by a factor of 50.

Roukes likened the brain to a computer, with neurons as logic gates and the electrical activity between neurons as bits of information. "We'd like to go broader," beyond individual neural connections, and study the activity in entire brain regions, he said. "We'd like to understand what all the bits in these regional processors tell us. What's going on in the brain's local circuits?"

To measure that, Roukes and his colleagues have been developing nanoscale probes that can be inserted into a living brain to take real-time, high-resolution data. Current technology allows researchers to observe about 100 neurons in real time, but Roukes and his collaborators are working on greatly increasing that number.

Funding for the BRAIN Initiative would help scale up their new technology, he said, and make it reproducible on a larger scale. It could allow researchers to make real-time recordings of approximately one million neurons in a human brain in about 15 years, he said.

The BRAIN Initiative has been compared to the Human Genome Project (HGP), which successfully identified most of the DNA base pairs that make up human genes, by coordinating researchers and standardizing the technology needed to do so. The BRAIN Initiative would also help standardize technologies for brain observations and make them more widely available, Van Essen said. But unlike the HGP, its work would never really be done. Humans have a finite set of genes, but there is an almost infinite number of ways the brain can be organized. Each person's brain is folded differently, and has a different pattern of brain wiring. That's true even for identical twins, who share the same genes, he said.

A better understanding of the brain could have immediate applications, such as preventing patients from being awake but unable to move during an operation, said Emery Brown. Brown is a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, and a member of the National Institutes of Health's BRAIN Initiative working group. At the briefing, he showed a video of brain waves changing as a person become unconscious while under anesthesia, noting that a very predictable pattern is visible.


Emery Brown [Kathleen O'Neil]
"Brain monitoring like this is not standard of care, but it should be," Brown said. "If you have monitoring like this, problems like intra-operative awareness basically wouldn't be there," because the anesthesiologist could see on a screen in the operating room whether a person was unconscious or not.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, told attendees that he supports the BRAIN Initiative because the proposed research could lead to better treatments for those who are challenged with brain diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. The brain "is a frontier about which we know so very little," Fattah said.

View the 5 June presentation slides from:

 Michael Roukes (PDF)

David Van Essen (PDF)