Earlier this week, researchers announced that the world's two most ambitious brain-mapping initiatives—the U.S. Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and the European Union's Human Brain Project (HBP)—would collaborate, potentially directing a combined AU$5B in funding towards the goal of building a comprehensive map of the human brain.
Kristen Harris, lead neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Learning and Memory, has dealt firsthand with the fairly low-tech—and, subsequently, frustratingly slow—brain mapping tools available to neuroscientists today. But as we work on better technology, she also sees considerable potential for advancement if we bring in scholars from other fields and address these questions in an interdisciplinary way:
But the basic technological problem she describes is huge. Neurotechnology stands to change considerably over the next ten years—and if the effort to map the human brain is to be successful, it will need to. While the HBP and BRAIN initiatives are often compared to the Human Genome Project, mapping a brain is a much more complex proposition than sequencing a genome—and given the many factors that affect brain development, results generated by a single map are likely to be far less uniformly applicable. And this is assuming that neuroscientists find only what they expect to find; as the recent discovery of the glymphatic system suggests, we are only now beginning to answer the simplest, broadest questions about the structure of the brain. It would be difficult to predict, and foolish to declare, what we'll find next.