What Is the BRAIN Initiative Mapping Project?

A doctor viewing a scan of the human brain

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Brain mapping sounds like something taken straight out of science fiction. One can imagine a miniaturized explorer meticulously documenting her discoveries as she traverses the surface, including the valleys and ridgelines, of the brain. In reality, brain mapping might help us to better understand discrete regions of the brain and lead us to discoveries that relieve serious disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. That is the goal of the BRAIN Initiative Mapping Project.

What Is Brain Mapping?

Pause for a moment to consider the brain. It may contain 100 billion cells. Each cell, called a neuron, may connect to tens of thousands of other brain cells.

These networks support functions that are integral to our lives. Without an even minimally functioning brain, most would assent, there is no meaningful life. Science has attempted to illuminate this most vital of our organs.

The History of Brain Mapping

Understanding the brain not as a single, uniform organ, but as one made up of discrete regions is a concept that has existed for more than 100 years. In 1909, Korbinian Brodmann wrote a paper describing a map of the cerebral cortex, dividing the brain’s surface into 43 areas. He separated these regions based on specimens of thinly cut brain tissue demonstrating distinct cell body staining patterns. The architecture of cells could be used to divide the brain into distinct areas.

Brodmann’s attempts were hugely influential. To correlate anatomical structure with brain function was unique. It allowed a framework to develop that attempted to link damage to specific structures to consistent loss of function. His initial map still helps neuroscientists to localize findings to imaging of the brain, as might be obtained in the setting of stroke, traumatic injury, or tumor.

Brain Mapping Today

Just as other maps may be refined over time, further work has expanded our understanding of the topographical organization of the brain’s tissues. The Brain Activity Map Project was created to promote such advancements. This project was championed at a conference organized by Miyoung Chun of The Kavli Foundation in London in September 2011.

Scientists have continued to advance the understanding of the brain’s structure.

In 2016, the brain was further subdivided into 180 separate parcels showing clear differences in structure, function, and connectivity—97 included areas were described for the first time.

These newer maps are constructed with the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques, including functional MRI (fMRI), that measure the flow of blood in response to different (very specific) mental tasks.

This type of mapping involves slowly moving across the surface of the brain until significant changes are noted in two or more independent properties, helping to delineate borders on the map. Although the number of areas may be consistent, the sizes vary from individual to individual. These differences may importantly distinguish cognitive and creative abilities as well as the potential risk for brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even depression.

Dividing the brain into smaller pieces may help neuroscientists to appreciate how it works as a whole. However, single measurements may prove to be incomplete, providing a misleading view of the brain and its function.

Mapping also explains little about the biochemistry that is foundational. It may also fail to elucidate the role of small groups of, or even important single, neurons. As technology advances, repeat mapping efforts may be required.

Beyond structural differences apparent on a cellular level, it may be possible to organize the brain’s tissues based on its activity and interconnections. With political and economic support, this project was folded into a wider BRAIN Initiative.

Research Funding Supports the BRAIN Initiative

Unraveling the complexity of the brain requires a nearly unprecedented level of cooperation within the scientific community, a willingness to work together across geopolitical divides, and a pooling of resources in a global public-private partnership.

Originally dubbed the Brain Activity Map, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was launched by President Barack Obama in the United States on April 2, 2013.

The BRAIN Initiative aspires to map the function of hundreds of thousands of neurons simultaneously, as they function at the speed of a fleeting thought.

Before reviewing the aspirations of this project, it is important to recognize that Americans are not alone in the endeavor.

In fact, the BRAIN project joins other worldwide initiatives that are part of a global push to more fully understand the inner workings of the brain. On September 19, 2016, the International Brain Initiative was launched at a meeting accompanying the United Nations’ General Assembly. The National Sleep Foundation and the National Institute of Health (NIH) within the U.S. have committed resources to develop and support the project.

Beyond the development of a detailed plan to guide the necessary scientific research—including timetables, milestones, and estimated costs—financial support has to be both acquired and maintained. The Brain Mapping Project, and the wider BRAIN Initiative, was initially funded with more than $100 million and it is expected to cost billions of dollars over more than a decade.

Beyond public research monies, private efforts in dynamic brain mapping have included:

  • Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle (spending $60 million annually over 4 years)
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia (spending at least $30 million annually)
  • Kavli Foundation in Oxnard, California (spending $4 million annually for ten years)
  • Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego (committing $28 million to efforts)

The collaborative, public-private research initiative ultimately has a goal of supporting the development of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function.

Key Goals of the BRAIN Project

The broader mission of the BRAIN Initiative is “to deepen understanding of the inner workings of the human mind and to improve how we treat, prevent, and cure disorders of the brain.” To accomplish this, new technology must be developed to explore how the brain’s cells and circuits interact, ultimately revealing the complex links between brain function and behavior.

There are several key goals of this project, and there are myriad ways these might be realized over the next decade.

  • Advance neurotechnology: Financial support of promising research will lead to the rapid development of technology that not only helps us to understand the underpinnings of the brain, but also how to diagnose and treat disorders affecting it. Innovation, scientific breakthroughs, and device advancement will require multi-disciplinary teams of engineers and neuroscientists.
  • Facilitate dynamic imaging: If current brain imaging is like leafing through a stack of photographs, newer technology will produce dynamic images, like watching a brain function in real-time. Imaging technology must be advanced to visualize these functions at higher resolution across differing space and time scales.
  • Explore brain functionality: The brain is not a static organ; it actively records, processes, stores, retrieves, and uses vast amounts of information almost instantaneously. To understand this capacity, the brain must be investigated in real-time with multiple potential modalities, many of which do not presently exist.
  • Link behavior to function: The outward manifestation of brain function is observed as a behavior. What is more complicated is the myriad ways someone can be noted to behave. With the use of advanced computational models, it may be possible to unravel these patterns and pioneer models to enhance desired behaviors.
  • Enhance consumer applications: Medical devices that interact with brain tissue may profoundly affect our future lives, and regulation must promote the health and well-being of consumers. Bringing these technologies to consumers with an eye towards both safety and effectiveness is key as the field advances.

The Pros and Cons of the Brain Mapping Project

It may seem like there are limitless opportunities and boundless potential in the field of neuroscience. As we advance knowledge about the brain, we gain an intimate understanding of what it means to be human. However, the Brain Mapping Project may have some potential drawbacks.

  • Money drain: A large project such as this may siphon financial support and attention from other worthy causes. This funding could be abruptly cut by government or non-profit agencies.
  • Differing research priorities: Not all scientists have the same focus. When they are forced to seek financial support, this may lead them away from their strengths. Ethical considerations may also limit cooperation, as not all scientists will participate in primate research, for example.
  • Conflict and lack of consensus: In seeking scientific truth, the path forward is not always clear. Strong personalities combined with differences of opinion may lead to conflicting hypotheses and research priorities. This lack of consensus among experts may sow discord.
  • Ignoring contributions from smaller countries: Though industrialized countries may contribute $300 million in research funding, developing nations may not be able to similarly stake a claim in the project. This may be counterbalanced by contributing patients, model organisms, and affordable technologies—but only if there is a seat offered at the table.
  • Basic science vs. applied technology: Some scientific knowledge is solely gained with the noble aim to advance knowledge. Financial incentives, and the ability to create an applied technology that can be profitable, may tip the focus of the endeavor.
  • Integrating existing resources: This project builds on prior work, and has to find a way to integrate the U.S. Human Connectome Project (focusing on mapping the brain’s structural and functional connections), the European Union’s Human Brain Project (focusing on the basic science of how the brain works), and Canada’s CBRAIN program (focusing on creating technologies that can be applied to medicine), among other preceding efforts.

Fortunately, there is a lot of promise and reason for hope as this project continues. Brain mapping will eventually integrate multiple measurements, including:

  • Cortical thickness
  • Brain function
  • Connectivity between regions
  • Topographic organization of cells
  • Levels of myelin (fatty insulation that speeds up neural signaling)

Unifying research efforts, allowing teams to collaborate and exchange information, to pursue specific goals under the banner of the Brain Mapping Project will allow substantial advancements in neuroscience.

A Word From Verywell

The Brain Mapping Project represents a remarkable commitment to funding progress in our understanding of the correlation between structures and functions within the brain. Powerful microscopes, supercomputing resources, and universal brain-mapping tools will allow scientists to expedite discovery. These advancements may prove to enable the enhancement of brain health for all humanity, but only if funding and cooperation are maintained.

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