Those who follow biomedical research policy have become used to the launch of gargantuan programmes promising near limitless gains for both health and wealth. It started with the Human Genome Project (HGP) in the 1990s, when molecular biologists claimed that individual human identity could be digitalised onto a CD, while the editor of the leading US journal Science claimed that sequencing the human genome would solve cancer, schizophrenia and depression and thence homelessness. More recently, the promise of stem cells was editorialised in the Guardian as “almost biblical in its scale… The capacity for these cells to transform into whatever the body needs to regenerate itself could… make the blind see, the crippled walk and the deaf hear.” So far, the health benefits of both genomics and regenerative medicine have been modest, though several fortunes have been made.
Until now, the neurosciences have lacked their big project, even though the 1990s was supposed to be the decade of the brain and the 2000s that of the mind. But things are about to change. In January, the European Commission announced that its Future and Emerging Technologies programme was awarding a €1bn prize to the Human Brain Project, which aims to build a model of a brain on a supercomputer. The following month, President Obama, citing the Battelle Institute’s claim that every dollar spent on the HGP had yielded $140 to the US economy, endorsed a rival plan—a $3bn “Brain Action Map” (BAM).
For both the Europeans and the Americans, “solving” the human brain is the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century, making it possible to prevent or cure diseases from autism to Alzheimer’s, enabling new supercomputers to be constructed, and at long last providing a scientific understanding of self and mind. The projects differ in that the Europeans—a collaboration of some 40 labs—argue that the way forward is to create a silicon “virtual brain” through cloud computing. By contrast the BAM, picked up by Obama from a scheme floated by a group of (mainly) Californian neuroscientists, aims to map the trillions of connections between every nerve cell to create a “connectome.”
The neuroscience community—apart from the direct beneficiaries of this public largesse —has reacted with scepticism. After all, even for that most studied of organisms, the worm C elegans, with no more than 302 nerve cells all of whose connections are known, it is still not possible to translate wiring diagrams into behaviour. Furthermore, one of the fundamental properties of the human brain is its plasticity—the way that millisecond by millisecond and decade by decade the brain changes, its connections ever being made, broken and remade in different patterns as the brain’s owners respond to the world around them. Freezing such dynamism, whether in silicon or in a connectome, is to set aside this understanding. Encountering the promises that these mega projects will solve brain and mental diseases, it is hard not to respond with a weary sense of déjà vu. Will wealth trump health yet again?
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose are the authors of “Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology” (Verso)