Human Brain Activity map

A brain scan of white matter fibers, color-coded by direction.A brain scan of white matter fibers, color-coded by direction. (Courtesy of the Laboratory…)

The Obama administration is reportedly considering funding a multibillion-dollar effort to map the human brain. This so-called Brain Activity Map project is inspired by the success of the Human Genome Project in mapping the genetic code. The proposal was outlined in the journal Neuron last summer by a group of leading researchers, among them geneticist George Church of Harvard Medical School, one of the originators of the genome project. This is an endeavor with exciting potential, but we should think about the pros and the cons before proceeding.

The 10-year project's main goals involve basic science: to learn more about perception, thinking and consciousness by recording "the patterns and sequences of neuronal firing" by every neuron in entire circuits and brain regions. These maps would not be static pictures of the anatomy of the brain. They would instead be like time-lapse photographs of cities that show how traffic pulsates and buildings light up and go dark as people move from place to place. In a brain activity map, the traffic and lights would be electrical and chemical signals, and the buildings and streets would be neurons and their connecting fibers.

This kind of data set would have much better resolution, in both space and time, and would be many, many times larger than any currently available. The project would start with small circuits in tiny organisms, where it may soon become possible to record from every neuron at once. A fruit fly brain might be done in 10 years; the cerebral cortex of a mouse in 15. As the Neuron article makes clear, mapping an entire human brain would be a more distant goal.

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Q&A

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When is the human brain the most active?

The parasympathetic system is most active in normal, restful situations and is dominant during quiet, relaxed periods.

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