W&L Neuroscientist Sees Promise, Problems with Brain Mapping Initiative
When President Barack Obama announced a 10-year, $100-million project to map the human brain earlier this month, Tyler Lorig’s reaction was decidedly mixed.
Lorig is the Ruth Parmly Professor of Psychology and the chair of the Neuroscience Program at Washington and Lee University. Naturally, he welcomes the attention this new project will bring to his field. It is, Lorig said, “absolutely incredible advertising” for neuroscience.
Yet Lorig’s excitement comes with reservations.
In the first instance, he knows that while the $100-million price tag sounds like a lot, the money does not go nearly as far as people might imagine.
His other reservation, a bit more personal because of his own writing on the subject, concerns the language that is being used to describe this project.
“For everyone, including President Obama, the idea that we would ‘map’ the brain and go on this voyage of discovery and understanding of what different parts of the brain do what kinds of things sounds perfectly reasonable,” said Lorig, whose own research focuses on odor perception and the brain.
“For me, this leads to the idea that there are regions of the brain that are dedicated to certain kinds of functions. But the data don’t support that notion, and it makes the idea of mapping something extraordinarily difficult.”
Audio with Tyler Lorig:
Lorig believes that mapping is not the right way to describe the efforts being planned. He wants people to understand that the picture that will be developed is not going to be a map like a 19th-century phrenology map, but an image with newer, more sophisticated labels.
Instead, Lorig thinks an eventual map has to be understood as “shifting dynamic activity” that allows the brain to do certain things. He uses an orchestra as the analogy.
“If you’re listening to a particular piece of music that you know well, and it’s being played in a very different way, perhaps even by different instruments, you still recognize it,” he said. “Perhaps the arrangement is very different from the way you heard it last year with this symphony.
“That’s exactly what the brain is doing. It’s reorganizing itself to produce the same output but doing so with a completely different set of resources. Imagine how you would map those parts. It depends really on who’s playing, when they’re playing, and what the motivation is for playing as to how that mapping comes to be. It’s a four-dimensional problem.”
The very thought of this project, said Lorig, requires at least a little hubris from brain scientists to think they can even dent the massive amount that needs to be known about how the brain works.
There are, he explained, roughly 100 billion cells in the brain that trade information with each other, and that’s where “all of who we are comes from. To dip your toe in that water and say I’d love to know more about this, it’s a very, very hard thing to see big parts of that problem solved in one’s lifetime.”
Many have drawn comparisons between this new initiative, which is formally called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), with the Human Genome Project. Lorig does not believe that comparison is entirely apt.
The genome project, he noted, had a clear endpoint. The finish line was always in sight. That is not the case with BRAIN.
“We may never have an endpoint,” he said. “We’ll gain tremendous amounts of information. Hopefully that information will inform many, many things, including diseases of the nervous system from Parkinson’s to Alzheimers. It would be wonderful to find cures for those diseases, and it might be one of the outcomes of this project.”
Another potential outcome, Lorig said, could be understanding how the brain learns. This would have the potentially invaluable impact of improving education and could lead to new technologies that will assist in that effort. In Lorig’s view, the possibility that this research would help improve education could have the longest lasting and most significant effects “if we find that can improve our ways of doing education by learning about how the brain builds connections.
“We stepped into the genome project with a lot more money, a lot more commitment to the project and, frankly, the public understood the genome project far better than they understand a project about mapping the brain,” he said. “It’s up to people in neuroscience to explain the value of this initiative to the public.”
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs