Friday, March 1, 2013

If I Only Had a Brain!

By Keith McDowell

Ah, that morning cup of coffee that jumpstarts our mind and body in preparation for another day of mindless bureaucracy, tedious work, and endless social networking, both planned and unexpected. It’s the elixir of life that unlocks the innovative potential in each of us, only to be crushed under the weight of our daily duties and obligations.

But wait! Maybe your favorite brew from Starbucks is really part of a secret government project designed to infect our brains with wireless nanobots through the ingestion of coffee. And that Gen-6 wireless network we’re all waiting for, it comes with a carrier wave linked to the nanobots that forces us to buy Krispy Kreme donuts along with our coffee.

Mind control – science fiction or science fact?

Perhaps neither or maybe a mixture of both, depending on your tolerance for conspiracy theories or the inevitable domination of technology in our lives, especially as it relates to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. One thing is certain. The Obama Administration appears poised to propose that our Nation take on a multi-billion dollar, large-scale science and technology project similar in scope to the Manhattan Project, the Man-on-the-Moon project, and the Human Genome Project. It’s called the Brain Activity Map Project or BAM.

Proposed by Alivisatos, Chun, Church, Greenspan, Roukes and Yuste in a very readable and well-written paper entitled “The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics,” published in and available from the journal Neuron, BAM’s purpose is “to record every action potential from every neuron within a circuit” in order to obtain “the dynamical mapping of the ‘functional connections.’” Hmm, okay, so what exactly does that mean?

In principle, the end game for BAM is equivalent to the entire reductionist history of how scientists came to understand the behavior of matter in the form of a gas, a liquid, or a solid at the macroscale all the way down to the level of atoms and molecules. That story required several centuries to develop and is replete with notions of complexity, connectivity, and emergent properties – topics that I’ve reviewed in previous posts. The expectation is that BAM will reveal a similar story for our brain.

In simple terms, our brain at the micro-level is composed of some 100 billion neurons that are connected in a complicated circuit that changes over time (that change is known as plasticity of the brain). In the aggregate, these neurons through their individual actions produce at the macro-level functional behavior such as cognitive reasoning and consciousness as emergent properties. As scientists, we want to know how that all works. Indeed, understanding consciousness and what that entails is for me the greatest challenge for the Twenty-first century.

So is any of this possible or is BAM a science boondoggle? At the whole-brain or macro-level, brain research has undergone a major transformation over the past decade or two. Using technologies such as EEG, CT, fMRI, PET, and MET, neuroscientists are engaged in a massive exercise to map the macro-activity of the brain. Instead of nanobots, human subjects often ingest chemical markers to enhance the signal similar to those barium cocktails many of us have swallowed for the ever popular GI series x-rays. And they expect you to hold it in while you trot with bare feet on the cold tile floor to the nearest bathroom!

Texas in particular is well positioned to carry out such research. Take, for example, the Center for Brain Health at UT Dallas headed by Dr. Sandra Chapman or the enormous investment in imaging facilities at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Working with local industry such as Texas Instruments, Metroplex universities, medical centers and hospitals have forged multiple public-private partnerships tailored both to pursue such research and to generate downstream commercial products, especially in the broader area of the human-machine interface. Every science and technology prognosticator that I know believes that the human-machine interface, and specifically, the brain-machine interface, will be the technology story for this century.

But let’s return to BAM and the technological issue of whether it is currently possible to actually map the individual and collective activity of a large number of neurons, whether in elementary lifeforms possessing minimal neuronal activity or in human beings. Realistically, the answer is no, but we are on the brink of being able to do so due to the “bnice” convergence of the bio, nano, info, cogno, and eco areas of science. It’s going to happen within the next decade or two whether BAM drives it or not. Whether by smart wireless nanobots that attach themselves non-invasively to neurons or by some other process not yet identified, it’s going to happen. To think otherwise is to deny the emergence of chemical markers such as the barium cocktail.

There are issues with funding BAM. Will it be just a zero-sum game with funds being diverted from other equally deserving, but small-scale projects, or a truly new investment? What precisely is the goal of BAM, since some believe that it is not nearly as well defined as sequencing the human genome, reaching the moon, or producing the atomic bomb? Will health disparities arise? Will there be a brain enhancement divide similar to the digital divide? And, of course, is mind control by the government the ultimate motive for federal support of BAM?

Personally, I’m not particularly bothered by these issues since they are similar in nature to those that arise from any major research project. As for mind control, I predict that will only become a potential issue long after we’ve all been converted into the Borg via human-machine interfaces and computers have morphed into self-aware cyclons, able to leap past human beings in a single bound.

The potential for BAM as a component of the greater human-machine story of the Twenty-first century is enormous. The spin-off in innovations and commercial products to improve or repair our sight, hearing, and smell will define global competition in this century much like information technology did for the Twentieth century, not to mention the impact on many diseases such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia and the contributions to artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience. Any nation or any industry not planning for that eventuality will be left behind. I support the BAM concept and the need for federal funding to accelerate its emergence but, first, let’s bring together a collection of our leading scientists and engineers along with appropriate ethicists to define further the parameters and the goal of the project.

Mercifully, some of us will be spared from such new-age invasions via mind control or nanobot monitoring of our daily routine – or as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz famously opined: “if I only had a brain.”

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