Big science for lean times

Efforts to make sense of the morass of cells and signals that populate the brain have come a long way in the last 50 years. Scientists have examined the signaling of single neurons in great detail, revealing much about the electrochemical mechanisms that carry messages from one cell to the next. Modern scanning technologies have enabled unprecedented if high-altitude views of the brain’s inner workings, pinpointing functional units of the brain. But the greatest promises of brain research — a cellular description of thought and behavior and, even more importantly, strategies to battle disorders of the brain — have yet to be fulfilled.

Making good on those promises is the motivation behind the federal BRAIN Initiative, proposed by President Barack Obama last year, now in the process of being further articulated by neuroscientists and the focus of a special report in this issue. One goal is to develop a view of the middle ground: how individual neurons hook up in circuits and coordinate their activity en masse to give rise to the regions lit up in a brain scan. Some progress on the daunting problem of mapping all of the brain’s connections has already been made, as Tom Siegfried describes. But the initiative espouses a broad array of additional goals, including the invention of new tools to study and manipulate thousands of neurons at once.

As Laura Sanders reports in our cover story, the initiative may well be one of the most ambitious big science projects ever proposed, à la the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program and the Human Genome Project. But, so far at least, this is big science on a much smaller scale, with limited resources, no unified plan and no simple metric of success.

It sounds like Mission Impossible. But it’s worth doing. Even if scientists don’t reach the many lofty goals outlined so far, they still have the potential to make great progress. And the exercise of creating a road map for neuroscience in the 21st century will not be a wasted effort even if all of those milestones aren’t reached until the 22nd century. The real value of the Human Genome Project, after all, wasn’t the complete DNA contents of a person. It was the creation of tools to collect and analyze genetic information that have revolutionized views of the natural world. 

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