Just like the Human Genome Project advanced research in genetics, a project to map the human brain will accelerate our understanding of how the mind works. As reported by the New York Times, the Obama administration will unveil an effort to map out brain activity as part of its budget proposals.

Comprehensively mapping out what individual neurons do and how the brain functions could tell us a lot. The exact causes of autism, for instance, and schizophrenia remain mysterious, although there are lots of candidates. A brain map could narrow those down, and maybe even lead to cures.

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The U.S. government wants to launch the project in the next few months. The concept sounds simple enough: find out which brain cells serve what functions when coupled to their neighbors. But it is really far more complicated.

Mapping brains is now possible is the development of technologies such as nanometer sized probes and detecting photons given off by calcium ions in individual neurons. The trick will be putting together the data from many groups across the country and around the world. (Functional magnetic resonance imaging and CT scans can’t see what individual cells are doing).

While scientists have a reasonably good idea what large parts of the brain do — a head injury to the occipital lobe, for instance, will cause vision problems — what a map of human brain activity would look like isn’t yet known. A lot of properties of brain cells only emerge when they are part of a larger whole, so studying individual neurons isn’t much help in figuring out what they do when they are all connected in a brain.

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The whole project is estimated to cost billions — the hoped-for budget for mapping the brain is about $3 billion over a decade. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but the administration said that’s small compared to the potential returns.

By comparison, mapping the human genome cost some $3.8 billion. The Times noted that returns were about $800 billion in economic activity. Mapping the brain could do at least that well.

Via The New York Times

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Helmut Januschka