Understanding the brain won’t be done simply by mapping it down to the last synapseby Philip Ball / December 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
We’re surely now in the Age of the Brain. In the United States, the BRAIN Initiative, announced in 2013 and with a projected cost of $3bn, aims to map the activity of every neuron in the brain—first, those of mice and other animals, then of humans. The European Union has assigned €1bn to the ten-year Human Brain Project, which intends to deduce the brain’s wiring circuit in order to build a complete computer simulation of it. And now Japan has launched its own ten-year initiative, called Brain/MINDS, with a focus on understanding brain diseases and malfunctions such as Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and autism.
Of all these projects, the Japanese effort is the most modest, and likely to be the most useful. It will use a combination of brain imaging and genetics to try to figure out what goes wrong and why, in particular using marmosets as a model for humans. The European project, meanwhile, has already run into serious problems. Many neuroscientists are concerned that its ambitions are premature, and last July 130 researchers from labs around the world signed an open letter complaining of the “overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals.” The signatories say that the project could prove to be a huge waste of money, and criticize what they see as the opaque and unaccountable way the project is being run.
Some of those complaints are about infrastructure and management. But some go to the heart of what modern brain science is attempting to do, and what its realistic limits are. Those issues are searchingly explored in a new book, The Future of the Brain, edited by cognitive scientist Gary Marcus and neuroscientist Jeremy Freeman, which I have recently reviewed for Prospect.
One of the most striking features of the neuroscience literature is the contrast between the image of “thinking” presented there and our everyday experience. The emphasis in neuroscience is on how the brain does things: how we process visual information, how we record memories, how we move our limbs and comprehend language. It’s true of course that most of us are capable of all these impressive feats—but rarely with anything approaching computer-like efficiency. We make bad judgements, we misunderstand, and…