The Obama administration is considering funding what could amount to the biggest science project of all time. A proposition called the Brain Activity Map, recently put forward by researchers in the journal Science, would aim to change the scale at which the brain is understood. “The mappers’ aim is to find out how nerve cells collaborate to process information. That means looking at the connections between hundreds, thousands and even millions of adjacent cells—and doing so, crucially, while those cells are still alive, rather than after they have been sliced and diced for microscopic examination.”
What’s the Big Idea?
Unlike the Human Genome Project, which is perhaps the only project in recent memory to reflect the scale of the BAM, the tools needed to fully map the brain have yet to be invented. Proponents of the project expect to need machines that record, simultaneously, the activity of millions of nerve cells. “Then, having done the recording, they would like a second toolkit that lets them manipulate each cell at will, to see what effect that has on the rest of the circuit. Finally, to handle the unprecedented amounts of data that the first and second steps will generate, they would like a new set of computing hardware and software.”