BRAIN Initiative
April 8, 2013 2:37 PM   Subscribe

President Obama recently announced a big new effort to map and understand the human brain.

What are we trying to learn about our brains?
One thing we will earn is how our brains are structured, "not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order." Another is how much of mental illness is shaped by experience and society, as opposed to chemical or structural factors.

What do we already know about our brains?
12 Things We Know About How The Brain Works. And we know that unconcious processing improves decision-making. That brain structure may be linked to placebo response. And that unconcious brains can read and do math. We know a little bit more about how the brain responds to addiction. And we know that "genetic, molecular and cellular mechanisms" in childhood can have permanent ill effects. We think that differences in our brain reflect political differences. But we know that a lot of pop neuroscience is bollocks.

What could we do with new information?
Could we reverse-engineer AI? Manipulate our brains, neuron-by-neuron? Make better soldiers? Or record dreams? Or activate neurons with light? Or make better, crowdsourced brain maps?

Neurotechnology, Social Control, And Revolution
In our neuro-centric world-view, a person is equated to his brain. The neuro-discourse has penetrated all aspects of our lives from law to politics to literature to medicine to physics. As part of this neuro-revolution, huge military funding is supporting neuro-scientific research; a huge body of basic knowledge on memory, belief formation, cognition and sensory modalities has been gathered over years, with fieldslike social neuroscience, cultural neuroscience, neuroeconomics and neuromarketing has emerging to improve our lifestyle; neurotechnological know-how from wireless non invasive technologies to neuroelectronic interfaces is exponentially advancing; and neurotechnology business reports indicates the rapid increase in neurotechnological start ups and the willingness of bringing neurotechnological products to the market. In my opinion, all the aforementioned indicators indicate that neurotechnology can be potentially used to control social dynamics.
posted by the man of twists and turns (22 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'm very excited. Not only for the benefit to humanity, but an in-depth study of the brain will also help with my health issues.
posted by _paegan_ at 3:35 PM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

10 Unsolved Mysteries Of The Brain (2007)

wikipedia List of unsolved problems in neuroscience

I'm surprised we don't understand more about long term memory:
Learning and memory: Where do our memories get stored and how are they retrieved again? How can learning be improved? What is the difference between explicit and implicit memories? What molecule is responsible for synaptic tagging?
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:58 PM on April 8, 2013

A few years ago I read On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee. It delivers a theory of intelligence that really rings true. It attempts to explain what "intelligence" is, how it might have arisen through evolution, and how the brain implements it. The theory rests heavily on memory, which as Golden Eternity points out is still a poorly-understood mechanism. Still, I highly recommend it!
posted by rustcrumb at 4:27 PM on April 8, 2013

That's just what we need Obama bin Laden reading our minds. Thanks George Sorros!
posted by Bonzai at 4:47 PM on April 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

The BRAIN initiative is currently pretty amorphous (there aren't really actual plans yet), but it will be expanding on some incredible science. For example, the Human Connectome Project at the National Institutes of Health has been mapping out the neural fiber architecture of the brain, and finding the major connections between anatomical features of the brain. There are rumblings about the BRAIN initiative funding more of the kinds of imaging and tracing tools used in the connectome project.
posted by zennie at 5:30 PM on April 8, 2013

BOOOOOOOOO whats the point of understanding things we should be giving everyone bagels instead BOOOOO (jk I just want a bagel)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:39 PM on April 8, 2013

Why do we always need to try to talk about what we can "do" with the knowledge. Like cure some disease or something. "How does the brain work?" is a pretty fundamental question about human existence. It seems like something that we should want to know for it's own sake. In fact, we might not know the applications of the knowledge until we have the knowledge.

Think about Newton and gravity, you can use newton's laws (mostly) to travel between the planets, but before we knew about gravity we didn't even really know what the planets even were.

Or, for example if you look at solid-state physics the idea of a semiconducting transistor, or an LED or a solar panel wouldn't have even been thought up before we knew about quantum physics.

So, if we have an accurate map of the brain and how it all functions we may be able to come up with all kinds of interesting things, but we might not even know what those things are until we end up with a map.

Or it might turn out that there aren't really any actual technological applications at all. I mean, it's not like the higgs boson is going to have any practical application in the near future - That doesn't mean we shouldn't have tried to find it.
posted by delmoi at 5:49 PM on April 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Bonzai: "That's just what we need Obama bin Laden reading our minds. Thanks George Sorros!"

Seriously. When I heard about this project my first thought was how bonkers this was going to drive the conspiracy theorists.
posted by brundlefly at 6:04 PM on April 8, 2013

I bet tinfoil sales will soar just like assault rifle sales did after his inauguration.
posted by acb at 6:07 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Or, as a previous Democratic President reportedly said, “We have control of the mind”.
posted by acb at 6:36 PM on April 8, 2013

Or it might turn out that there aren't really any actual technological applications at all.

The peeps I work with did this recently.

Which I'm told holds a lot of promise of the early diagnosis and treatment of a whole host of disorders.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:05 PM on April 8, 2013

Obama was inspired by finding Reagan's brain amongst some dust bunnies under a White House coffee table.
posted by Sparx at 7:31 PM on April 8, 2013

Reverse engineering is an interesting challenge. We're used to dealing with artefacts whose form is shaped by the need for them to be comprehensible. We write code (hopefully) in a way that allows someone else to see easily what's going on, and make successful changes; we design machines in such a way that they can be put together easily in the first place and then taken apart for maintenance.

Evolution, however, is under no obligation to make things clear or easy to disassemble. Whatever works is fine, no matter how complicated. Remarkably, the body is in fact modularised and organised to a considerable degree (which is itself an interesting fact) but the brain looks as if it might be less friendly to exploration.

In the limit case we might have the full connectome mapped, know all the neurotransmitters, details of all the astrocytes, why not - and still not understand how it works.

It'll be fascinating finding out, either way.
posted by Segundus at 2:58 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm excited about this project and selfishly hope it will lead to new discoveries about treating or preventing Alzheimer's and other disorders.
posted by missmerrymack at 5:05 AM on April 9, 2013

I hope they learned to protect their patents [Public Domain] after the errors of the Human Genome Project. If so, then this might truly serve the interest of the public rather than a handful of opportunistic shareholders. Even so I believe this is a step in the direction of progress.
posted by Kale Slayer at 8:39 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also this will create more careers than the Keystone XL pipeline ever could.
posted by Kale Slayer at 8:44 AM on April 9, 2013

I wish I had a rat's tail to wag to express my enthusiasm for this.
posted by homunculus at 1:44 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Relevant post from today:
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:19 PM on April 10, 2013

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