28 February 2013

“Neuroscience! Because Alzheimer’s!”

Europe has a big brain modelling project, and now the United States is talking about a big brain project. Attention exploded when “mapping the brain” was mentioned in the American State of the Union speech. This prompted a lot of talk about this proposal, as you can see in the long list of external links below.

Let’s see what was said about the project in the American State of the Union speech.

Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s(.)

The justification is why I am unable to conjure up anything other than a weary sigh about this project.

“Neuroscience! Because Alzheimer’s!”

I’m surprised Parkinson’s didn’t get mentioned, too. It usually is in these sort of speeches.

The brain mapping is being pitched politically as worth doing because it will lead to cures. If you go digging through the long list of external links below, you will find basic neuroscientists who are talking about what is technically feasible, whether this is better done as one big project of funding lots of small ones. But neuroscientists are not talking about curing neural diseases as a reason to do this project. Mainly, they are seeing this as a chance to get a lot of fancy new toys to record activity from a lot of neurons at once.

If you go back to the 1980s and 1990s, you would hear promises like this:

“Human genome! Because disease!”

That has not happened, at least not in the way that people talked about at the time. People have memories, and they will wonder why we don’t have all that great personalized medicine that they were promised.

I am not saying the human genome project should not have happened. By most accounts, it was a good investment and generated a lot of economic returns. This was mentioned in the State of the Union address, too (although the exact number is contentious):

Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 dollars to our economy.

I wish there were more people trying to build trust in the research enterprise rather than making promises.

Additional: Speaking of personalized medicine, here’s a long read on the current state of the art.

When I tell my parents the results, I can’t help sounding disappointed. “It’s reassuring,” I say when we gather around the kitchen table. “But I expected to find out more that seemed relevant to our family.”

Hat tip to Ed Yong.

Additional, 12 March 2013: Having grumbled about genomics and medicine above, I would be remiss if I didn’t link to a more promising story, again courtesy of Ed Yong.

Related posts

Overselling the connectome
Brainbrawl! The Connectome review
Promises versus trust

External links

Obama seeking to boost study of human brain
US government to back massive effort to understand the brain
Why Some Scientists Aren't Happy About Obama's $3 Billion Brain Research Plan
Brain Project Draws Presidential Interest
BAM! My Thoughts on Big Bucks for Big Brain Science
Here’s how Obama’s brain mapping project will actually work
A 3 billion dollar mistake: Why the American government should think twice about a Brain Activity Map (BAM)
Connecting the Neural Dots
How Smart is Proposed Brain Activity Mapping Project?
A Manhattan Project to map the brain
Finding the treasure: A practical view on where the Brain Activity Map project will lead us
Brain Activity Map: boondoggle or bonanza?

Image from here.

1 comment:

Dennis Eckmeier said...

Scientific progress is like evolution. It is not really directed. Science deals with the unknown, thus it is not predictable what information any project generates. Finally, a breakthrough often is found to be a combination of gathering the information from several "unrelated" research directions and a 'freak accident' or 'unexpected outcome' as it is often described by the scientists.
Also, scientists don't make applications. People who make applications use scientific knowledge to create something new.

I am not saying this can not be combined in one person but I want to point out that it is called "Research AND Development" - that's because it is not the same.

Why do basic scientists come up with unrealistic promises? Because lay people are being told by the media that science was directed. Articles on scientific discovery follow the motif "A led to B which led to C which we could use to make D which has a promising application." Combined with the application mania and the economic crisis people don't want to see "taxpayer's money wasted on" the "wrong science".

There is currently no way of saying "I want to figure out the brain, because knowledge!", because people are misinformed about the scientific method. It's sad but I don't see, at this point, how this can be changed.

So, I personally, I like the idea of doing the whole human brain studies, simply because one thing is in fact prodictable: it will generate methods and knowledge useful to science.

Do we need a central project or distributed effort? I think both approaches have their pros and cons.