Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Our Brains, Ourselves

On April 2, 2014, United States President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies ("BRAIN") Initiative, whose mission is to “accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.”  The U.S. National Institutes of Health ("NIH") will help lead this ambitious effort.  To this end, its (BRAIN) Working Group released a report on June 5, 2014, entitled BRAIN 2025: A Scientific VisionThis report begins with a bold assertion unlikely to attract universal agreement among neurobiologists and other scientists who study the complex relationships between brain, cognition, and behavior:
The human brain is the source of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, actions, and memories;  it confers on us the abilities that make us human, while simultaneously making each of us unique. Over recent years, neuroscience has advanced to the level that we can envision a comprehensive understanding of the brain in action, spanning molecules, cells, circuits, systems, and behavior.
The report ends in a similarly ambitious tone:
The BRAIN Initiative is a challenge and an opportunity to solve a central mystery—how organized circuits of cells interact dynamically to produce behavior and cognition, the essence of our mental lives. The answers to that mystery will not come easily. But until we start, the progress we desire will always be distant. The time to start is now.
Hoping to replicate the successes of the Human Genome Project, President Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to neurobiologists.  Research into the brain is likely to yield many benefits to society.  However, just as complete knowledge of the nucleotide sequence of our genomes is unlikely to offer complete understanding of our genetics, neither is comprehensive mapping of our neural circuits likely to reveal the "essence of our mental lives."  A better scientific description of the brain will certainly shed valuable light on behavior.  However, understanding behavior is unlikely to be as easy as characterizing neurons and neural circuits.