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Project seeks to unlock the mysteries of the brain

Walk Jane’s Talk

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Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 12:15 am

A new effort to understand and map the human brain in order to gain a wider knowledge of perspective abilities, consciousness and its actions is about to be launched. The studies will involve many federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists.

Some of the largest hopes for the advancement of these studies are to gain greater comprehension surrounding Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as autism and schizophrenia. A secondary goal is to advance knowledge in the realm of artificial intelligence.

President Barack Obama stated that the human genome mapping study returned $140 to the economy for every dollar invested. In fact, the Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion. It was instituted in 1990 and the goal was to map the complete human genome (all the genes in human DNA).

This was accomplished in April of 2003, and the federal government indicated that by 2010 the project had made a return of $800 billion.

However, many scientists worry that this new, very expensive undertaking could cause redistribution of federal funds from other worthy research projects, or that a study as massive of this one could cause redistribution of funds within the neuroscience field away from smaller yet very worthwhile studies.

The Brain Activity Mapping project, if approved by Congress, will cost at least $3 billion spread over 10 years.

The brain, although widely investigated and studied throughout the world for years, still remains one of the most profound mysteries of our bodies. The introduction of new technology that enables researchers to identify firing in the neurons of the brain has led to numerous international research projects. 

The BAM project is an undertaking to construct a comprehensive representational map of brain activity by generating convoys of molecule-sized machines to non-invasively sense, measure and accumulate brain activity at the cellular level. Because the brain is extremely complex, neuroscientists have not yet been able to record activity of more than a small number of neurons (brain cells) and this has been done invasively with physical probes.

This concept is much more than a static model, which shows how neurons connect to one another. Billions and billions of neurons communicate with each other via trillions of connections. As complex as that is, the BAM study looks to construct a functional model that allows researchers to see the individual action of each cell in the neural circuit, not just the connection. Creation of such a map will revolutionize neuroscience.

The first phase is devoted to creation of the tools that will allow this mapping to be recorded. The second phase is to implement the recording and documentation of real-time brain activity. The third phase may include the development of tools, which can influence brain activity and lead the way to cures and treatment of some of the troubling brain diseases or dysfunctions that we currently are helpless to reconcile.

This all sounds very futuristic and far-reaching, but humans are truly set apart by our brains. Everything in our way of life as individuals and as people in various cultures is a result of our brain activity.

Researchers envision not just interventions for autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, but also for cochlear and retinal implants, spinal cord injury, epilepsy and countless other neurological disorders.

Researchers also admit that it is not about speculation if there is a ready market for the end results of these investigations, as many people have been waiting for years for answers to their specific neurological issues. The future is just around the corner.

These are exciting times indeed.

• Jane Riley, M.S., B.A., C.P.T., C.N.A., can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, 212-1451 or www.janerileyfitness.com.  

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