Friday, April 5, 2013

Obama to Unveil Initiative to Map the Human Brain - NYTimes.com

I have been debating the potential for computer artificial intelligence to perform some complex tasks, such as analyzing passages of writing. One of my arguments has been that as we study the brain, we learn more about math, engineering, and programming. That's because the human brain is a type of computer.

To my way of thinking, autism is an input/output processing issue. I feel overwhelmed by sensory input. If I could "lower the volume" and "decrease the brightness" of things around me, that would reduce my stress greatly — and my headaches. But we need to know a lot more about the brain before we can address how to redirect or reprogram sensory input.

Now, we have an initiative to study the brain as never before:
Obama to Unveil Initiative to Map the Human Brain
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/science/obama-to-unveil-initiative-to-map-the-human-brain.html
President Obama on Tuesday will announce a broad new research initiative, starting with $100 million in 2014, to invent and refine new technologies to understand the human brain, senior administration officials said Monday.

A senior administration scientist compared the new initiative to the Human Genome Project, in that it is directed at a problem that has seemed insoluble up to now: the recording and mapping of brain circuits in action in an effort to "show how millions of brain cells interact."
Only a few years ago, nobody imagined mapping the complete human genome. A brain, with 86 billion neurons, is exponentially more complex than DNA — though DNA guides the development of the brain. Mapping the brain won't reveal all its secrets, either. At best, such a map will guide further research.

What's most exciting to me is that such a project inevitably leads to new technologies and discoveries. The sheer computing power required to map the brain will lead to new supercomputers and new programming techniques. That's exciting to any geek.
The effort will require the development of new tools not yet available to neuroscientists and, eventually, perhaps lead to progress in treating diseases like Alzheimer's and epilepsy and traumatic brain injury. It will involve both government agencies and private institutions.
Autism falls somewhere in this study, though I have no evidence that autism is of particular interest to the researchers. Still, if they are researching other neurological conditions, autism is a natural candidate for study.

Some of my research on autism and self-perception is connected to military funding. It doesn't surprise me, therefore, to find DARPA is involved in the "BRAIN" project (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies).
Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the N.I.H., described by the officials as a "dream team," and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.
As I stated above, the projects will lead to new technologies. This could be our "space program" for neuroscience. Just as the space program revolutionized computing, communications, and even photography, mapping the brain is going to lead to advances in numerous fields.
New technology would need to be developed to record thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurons at once. And, Dr. Newsome said, new theoretical approaches, new mathematics and new computer science are all needed to deal with the amount of data that will be garnered.
Some people will argue that $100 million could be spent on "more important" programs. We have record levels of unemployment and poverty, these critics might remind us. Yes, but the jobs created by this research will affect the entire economy over time. Research facilities will need to be built. Computers will need to be built. The infrastructure means jobs for people. As the research continues, technical job will be created, from computer engineers to software developers.

Plus, this isn't a lot of money — at least not in the world of higher education. Stanford University has a $1 billion endowment. The $100 million is "seed money" to encourage investment and research.
While the dollar amount committed by the Obama administration does not match the level of spending on the Human Genome Project, scientists said that whatever was spent on the brain initiative would have a significant multiplier effect. The Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is contributing money, said Terrence J. Sejnowski, head of the institute's computational biology laboratory, adding that the project would have an impact across the entire University of California, San Diego, campus, where the institute is based.

"One concrete example is that the chancellor has gotten excited about this and has decided that it is a great thing to invest in," Dr. Sejnowski said. "That means hiring new faculty and creating new space."

The project grew out of an interdisciplinary meeting of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in London in September 2011. Miyoung Chun, a molecular biologist who is vice president of scientific programs at the Kavli Foundation, had organized the conference. Her foundation, she said, supports the idea that the next big scientific discoveries will come from interdisciplinary research.
Autism research will benefit from the BRAIN project. I hope Congress finds a way to fully fund this effort and I also hope private foundations contribute. The implications of mapping the brain are beyond comprehension.

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