Mapping the brain

President Obama has initiated a new program to map the human brain. He has initially allocated $100 million for it but that will clearly not be enough for such a mammoth project and will have to be considered a down payment that must be added to later. I think that this is a worthy project, since the brain defines so much of who were are.

Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project, explains to Stephen Colbert what this project seeks to do. I was surprised when he said that 100 million people in the US, about a third of the population, have some sort of brain disease. Could it be that large? I suppose it depend on what you mean by ‘disease’.

I wonder if people quite realize what this kind of research can produce, apart from its potential for scientific and medical benefits. It can lead to new insights on religion and free will that could be quite discomfiting to a lot of people, especially religious ones.

(This clip was aired on April 4, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. invivoMark says

    Without reading much about it, I’m wary. I don’t like the trend of really big, expensive science projects, like the Cancer Genome Atlas or ENCODE. There’s too much money invested with too little guaranteed useful knowledge generated. They make for sexy headlines, but that’s about it.

    TCGA was a colossal waste of money that could have been much better used funding a thousand different small cancer and pharmacology labs. Instead we have a big database full of questionable data being used as a footnote in papers and talks. ENCODE is even worse, because the overwhelming majority of what it measured is noise.

    We already have thousands of perfectly functional neuroscience labs across the country, each one working on a worthwhile and attainable goal. Why not simply allocate more funding for them? If there’s some major discovery that can be made in the next 5-10 years, one of them will almost certainly figure it out. There’s no need to put all the money into one big pit.

  2. Matt G says

    Collins himself suffers from acute cognitive dissonance. Has BioLogos decided to take a stand on the existence of Adam and Eve yet?

  3. sunny says

    It can lead to new insights on religion and free will that could be quite discomfiting to a lot of people, especially religious ones.

    I suppose that makes Collins the right man for the job.

  4. says

    The catchy name for the brain map is “connectome”, and I’m surprised the media isn’t pushing that word (see my link for a fun connectome video below). One issue that led to this initiative is that neuroscience and discoveries about neurological diseases have progressed VERY slowly, in large part because we’re missing a definitive connectome. The other part of it is that finding this connectome is a monumental task that the vast majority of researchers can’t tackle alone (for technical reasons). Meanwhile, neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s are starting to be viewed as epidemics.

    I think Colbert missed Collins’ point that the NIH is motivated to cure disease, not to unlock all the mysteries of the mind. But Colbert did score a direct hit by using an argument that some neuroscientists are using against the project. The argument is that every individual connectome is different! As Colbert says, “The if-thens are different for everyone.” So figuring out the commonality between different individual brains is much harder than finding the human genome. However, I think this actually supports the need for a larger-scale, coordinated initiative.

    I have a post here about another popular criticism: the failure of the worm connectome. There is already a definitive connectome for C. elegans, and many people claim that it hasn’t led to any significant breakthroughs in understanding just a little worm! There’s a Scientific American article by Ferris Jabr who tries to look at both sides of this. However, if you want to see why neuroscientists in general are supportive, see this TED talk by Sebastian Seung titled “I am my connectome”. The animated trip through a brain is amazing!

  5. Marshall says

    I think this $100 million will function similarly to the NIH, in that labs whose projects are in line with this project’s goals’ apply for and receive funding. In other words–they’re not making new science labs to study brain mapping, they’re just providing additional sources of funding for those already doing so.

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