Story by Kathryn Kriss
The Human Genome Project, launched in 1990 by the U.S. government, aimed to identify and map all 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome. The goal was to figure out where each gene was, what it did and how it affects the body to produce characteristics like blue eyes or diseases like Huntington’s disease. Recently, President Barack Obama has drafted a new initiative to try the same thing except with mapping the human brain.
This idea, still in the proposal stage, would look on a much smaller scale at exactly how the brain functions. Tiny functional units that send electrical signals throughout the brain and to the body, called neurons, exist in billions. These neurons that take information from the body to the brain or from the brain to the body are all part of one big autonomic nervous system, which tells your body what to do and how to react either consciously or unconsciously.
Jerry Honts, associate professor and chair of the biology department at Drake, thinks that charting the neurons is something long overdue, but poses a serious challenge.
“One of the hardest tasks of biology is understanding the brain on the cellular level,” he said. He, along with hoards of other biologists and neurologists, want to know where the neurons are, where they go, and how they’re connected.
Some experimental research has already been done in this area. Scientists have been able to map out most of the neurons on extremely simple animals like nematodes and fruit flies, both of which have several hundred thousand neurons, but never on a scale as large or complex as a human brain.
Honts said the current method of looking at the brain is very indirect, it would take something as invasive as slicing open somebody’s head and sticking a microscopic camera into a live brain to really get a good picture. Another alternative involves fluorescently tagging specific pathways.
“We are able to differently color different neurons, which results in what we call a Brainbow,” Honts said. He hopes that due to the increased effort to see more of the brain, technology will advance to keep up with the speed of the project.
Sophomore biochemistry cell and molecular biology and neuroscience major Matthew Wright is a bit more skeptical.
“I think it’s an admirable project, but overly ambitious,” Wright said.
Wright thinks that the proposal in its current condition still has too many unanswered questions.
“The brain is so connected,” Wright said. “Where would you start? Where would you stop?”
Because of its ability to process on multiple levels at the same time, scientists would be forced to look at one level at a time only, too much specific detail for Wright’s opinion. His biggest concern is that they will lose the forest for sake of the trees.
While many see brain mapping as a cool new initiative, other people have a hard time seeing what it will mean until the end. The study will result in a greater understanding of the brain, and likewise a greater understanding of how neurological issues are developed and how they can be resolved.
Wright also mentioned how the biggest immediate impact the project will have comes in the form of an economic stimulus. While the project does cost significant amounts of money, he thinks that the investment will be worth it in the jobs it will create and the technology it will spawn.
The brain mapping initiative has yet to be sold to benefactors or the American public. Charting the human brain is expected to be on the technological horizon within the next 20 years.