Brain Mapping

On June 5, three scientists spoke on Capitol Hill about brain mapping research and how the proposed decade-long BRAIN Initiative could impact the neuroscience field. The briefing was part of a series organized by AAAS and supported by the Dana Foundation, designed to educate members of Congress and their staffs about topical issues in neuroscience.

Presenting at the meeting were Dana Alliance member David Van Essen, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis; Michael Roukes, Ph.D., a professor of physics, applied physics, and bioengineering at California Institute of Technology; and Emery Brown, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT.

AAAS reports,

The BRAIN Initiative has been compared to the Human Genome Project (HGP), which successfully identified most of the DNA base pairs that make up human genes, by coordinating researchers and standardizing the technology needed to do so. The BRAIN Initiative would also help standardize technologies for brain observations and make them more widely available, Van Essen said. But unlike the HGP, its work would never really be done. Humans have a finite set of genes, but there is an almost infinite number of ways the brain can be organized. Each person’s brain is folded differently, and has a different pattern of brain wiring. That’s true even for identical twins, who share the same genes, he said.

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The Value of the Connectome: Seung and Movshon Debate

Connectome debate imageFrom left to right: Movshon, Zimmer, Krulwich, and Seung.

Last night’s debate at Columbia University between neuroscientists Sebastian Seung and J. Anthony Movshon was billed as a heavyweight fight. In his welcoming address, in front of a packed house, Stuart Firestein referred to the participants as gladiators and the moderators as referees. And while he ended by saying “Let’s get ready to rumble!” the debate was rather temperate. The event, moderated by Carl Zimmer (Discover, The New York Times) and Robert Krulwich (NPR), was presented by NeuWrite and sponsored by the Dana Foundation.

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Knowing what is not known

    This past weekend I attended the program “What Makes the Mindset of a Radical?” part of the Rubin Museum of Art’s Brainwave
series. As described, the event set out to answer the question, “What
is it in our brains that makes some of us upend tradition and most of
us follow the herd?” But when it came time for neurophilosopher Owen Flanagan
to answer the question, he replied, “The brain is the most overrated
organ. Nothing is known about it except where it lights up sometimes.”

    Dr. Flanagan went on to cite research by Frank Sulloway on how birth order might affect behavior (something mentioned in Jerome Kagan’s upcoming Dana Press book The Temperamental Thread). Older
children have been shown to be more conservative, while younger ones
may be more likely to become revolutionaries. But, said Flanagan, this
has only a small effect. It has also been shown that people with
bipolar disorder are artists and other creative types in a higher
percentage than is found in the population at large. But, on the whole,
Flanagan emphasized, “Nothing is known about the brain on this topic.”

    During the audience Q&A, I pressed Flanagan on his assertions, asking if the slow development of the prefrontal cortex
might play a role in leading someone toward radicalism. Flanagan was
firm in his beliefs: Although the decade of the brain has passed, the
field of brain science is young. We are just now starting to complete
basic mapping of the brain, he added. Every brain is different; there
is more we don't know than we do know.

    This made me wonder: How
much do we need to know about a neuroscience topic before we are able
to take some broader conclusions from it? Clearly, there will always be
more questions than answers in the world (which might be what leads
someone to upend tradition and create a new school of thought). But how
much should we know about the brain before we attempt to start giving
some initial answers, even if they are couched in uncertain language?

    –Johanna Goldberg

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