BAM! Mapping the brain – A great adventure

By Shlomo Maital       

 Brain Map


Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, a widely used business-driven social network, once defined entrepreneurship as a process in which “you jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down.”     Some of the greatest large-scale scientific projects in history are much like what Hoffman describes.  President Obama will announce next month its intention to build a comprehensive map of the brain’s activity. It will take a decade, and nobody knows quite how it will be done. The project may be more ambitious than the human genome project.  America indeed is leaping off a cliff – and building the plane on the way down.  The project has the humdrum name of BAM! (Brain Activity Mapping). 

  Why is this project so difficult?  Simple – the human brain contains between 85 and 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) and several trillion connections.  So far, the only animal for which a full brain map exists is the famous C elegans worm, whose brain has a measly 302 neurons and 7,000 connections.   

   What may be the benefits of a brain map?  If you know precisely what each part of the brain can do, perhaps there will be ways to replace or strengthen those parts of the brain that are disfunctional or are damaged.   Perhaps adult stem cells will be able to replace damaged neurons that cause paralysis, or loss of the ability to speak.  Or even, to halt or cure Alzheimer’s – once we know precisely which cells are damaged and what they do.

   The human brain is an absolutely incredible organ.  Every year, the brain generates 300,000 petabytes of data.  In contrast, the Large Hadron Collider (which creates massive amounts of data that take years to analyze) creates 10 petabytes annually, only 1/30,000th of the brain. 

    Let’s applaud America and Obama for its leap off the cliff.  At the least, the project may inspire a generation of young people to study biology.  At the most, the project may yield fruits that reduce the immense human suffering related to dementia, and other brain-related illnesses. 

Source for this:  John Markoff, “In charting map of brain, a quest for signposts”, Global NYT, Feb. 27/2013, p. 10.