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Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

Goals in mind

Science | Neuroscientists debate objectives behind a splashy $3 billion brain mapping effort

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama announced his support for a massive brain science project, calling on Congress to fund scientists who are “mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.” In its 2014 budget, the Obama administration asked for over $100 million to launch the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). The project may cost $3 billion or more over its lifetime.

Meanwhile, the researchers involved in BRAIN are still trying to decide exactly what to research. The original proposal last year called for “reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits,” or more simply, visualizing how neurons interact to create thoughts, emotions, and bodily commands. 

The fine print: The technology needed to achieve that goal doesn’t yet exist. Scientists are still trying to understand the circuitry of a nematode’s “simple” nervous system of 302 neurons. A human brain, by contrast, has 85 billion. Existing lab techniques only allow researchers to study one or a few neurons at a time—not the 106 or more involved in a single, complete neural circuit.

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Of course, the very purpose of science is overcoming such obstacles. But it would be helpful to know where the spigot of federal funding will flow before turning it on. Right now a 15-person BRAIN advisory group is still debating the best course of action: Should they start by mapping out the nematode’s nervous system as a practice run? Work toward inventing a new, noninvasive lab technique for peering at live, human brain circuits?

Some critics think the entire project is misguided. Our brains rewire their circuits throughout our lives, so “mapping” the brain might be like mapping an ocean with moving islands. (And whatever promoters might say, BRAIN’s primary objective is not to cure Alzheimer’s, although it could yield some clues.)

At a BRAIN planning summit in May, Harvard chemist George Whitesides admitted that among many scientists, “There’s very deep skepticism that this approach, physical mapping at that scale, is going to work.”

Research roundup

NASA

Astronomy 

After four years of hunting for exoplanets, NASA’s Kepler space telescope appears to have bit the stardust. Two out of four $200,000 spinning wheels mounted inside the telescope to keep it correctly oriented have failed, and engineers say a repair effort is unlikely. Kepler has discovered 132 planets beyond our solar system since its 2009 launch.

Space 

If humans ever travel to Mars, they may want to wear lead spacesuits. Using data collected by Mars rover Curiosity, researchers found a six-month voyage to the red planet (and another six months back) would expose an astronaut to more than half of the lifetime dose of radiation considered acceptable by NASA. The exposure intensity during the trip would be like getting a CT scan every five days.

GM food 

Japan halted some imports of U.S. wheat after Agriculture Department officials found a genetically modified variety of wheat growing in Oregon. Seed company Monsanto field tested herbicide-resistant wheat in Oregon nine years ago, but the variety was never approved for consumption in the United States or elsewhere, although it is believed to be safe. It’s unclear whether the modified wheat patch was planted or escaped into the wild accidentally. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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