New Brain Initiative Aims to Fully Map the Human Brain

By Paul Caine Producer, WTTW’s Chicago Tonight

An ambitious new government-led research initiative aims to fully map the human brain.It’s called The Brain Initiative, and the goal is to advance understanding of how the brain works and develop treatments for crippling neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.But for brain researchers, the Holy Grail is to understand the origins of human consciousness. The research challenges are staggering, the consequences of success could be world-changing, from understanding consciousness to behavioral control.Two leading neuroscientists, John Maunsell and Bobby Kasthuri, join us to talk about this potentially groundbreaking project.On Thursday, Maunsell and Kasthuri will be part of a discussion on the BRAIN Initiative at Northwestern University.

The BRAIN InitiativePresident Barack Obama announced the launch of the BRAIN (an acronym for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative in April 2013:

“We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet through the research that’s done in this BRAIN Initiative alone. But it’s going to require a serious effort, a sustained effort. And it’s going to require us as a country to embody and embrace that spirit of discovery that is what made America, America.”

The objective of the initiative is to get a better understanding of the human brain with its nearly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections.“It’s a staggering, you could even say, daunting challenge,” said John Maunsell, professor and director of the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior at The University of Chicago. “The brain has 100 billion brain cells – neurons. That’s almost an inconceivable number, but that’s just the start of the complexity. Every one of those cells looks like a tree. Each human brain has 100,000 miles of cellular wiring and 100 trillion connections, so it really is a very challenging problem.”In the video below, Bobby Kasthuri, a neuroscience researcher at Argonne National Laboratories and assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Chicago, talks about the amount of data that would be produced by mapping the human brain.

One of the challenges with mapping the human brain is developing the necessary tools. In the video below, Kasthuri talks about how electron microscopes and a diamond knife are being used to map the brain.

It is hoped that the knowledge gained through the BRAIN Initiative will yield to breakthroughs in how neurological and psychiatric diseases are treated.“That’s certainly the hope, and I think that’s a very realistic sort of expectation. It’s very difficult to imagine how to treat something when you really don’t understand how [the brain] works normally,” Maunsell said. “Ultimately, the brain is a machine and it has some disorders, and we really don’t understand the underlying mechanisms, the origins of the scope of things like schizophrenia really are. Once we have a better understanding of the normal functioning brain, we will be in a much better position to understand neurological disorders.”

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