Big neuroscience maps the brain

With the BRAIN Initiative, researchers have set their sights on revealing the intricate parts and processes of the human brain. Science News explored some of the challenges facing this venture in a Special Report in the February 22 issue.

“I am unequivocally happy that this project exists,” tweeted Ben (@bxburton). “So am I,” responded @LisaGoogles. “Neuroscience is an exciting frontier.”

Some readers had thoughts on how to decode the brain’s connections. “I wouldn’t consider trying to understand a computer by tracing the wiring — it is much too complex, although not nearly as complex as a human brain. Since nature has neglected to provide us with a user’s manual, I would turn to the next best thing: the schematics or (perhaps more aptly for a biological computer) the recipe — namely, the DNA,” wrote David Gross, a retired computer professional, in an e-mail. “It should be far simpler to decode the recipe than to pick apart the end product.”

Steven Ostrom wrote, “I thoroughly enjoyed reading your recent issue on the brain. The articles were extremely interesting and written so they could be well understood by readers like me without a degree in neuroscience. But I do need to take you to task for making a sensational statement with no data or explanation to back it up. On Page 17 you state, ‘A pea-sized lump of brain tissue contains more information than the Library of Congress.’ I can’t deny that claim, but what unit of measurement is being used to quantify ‘information,’ and how is the comparison being made? It would be nice for the benefit of readers if you would explain any such sensational statements.”

Author Laura Sanders says, “By some estimates, the library’s print collection amounts to about 10 terabytes. It takes 100 terabytes to store a reconstruction of the connections in a salt-grain-sized speck of mouse cortex. And that doesn’t account for other ways that the brain stores and processes information.”

Moon dust mystery

The “50 Years Ago” update in Notebook mentioned that Earth’s moon is accruing dust at a rate of about a millimeter every thousand years, about 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought (SN: 2/22/14, p. 4).

Reader Bob Wake was amazed by this number. “This would predict 3 kilometers of dust in the three-plus billion years that most of the lunar surface has been unchanged!” he wrote in an e-mail. “I can think of three possibilities: a) Some process consolidates the dust into much firmer regolith, b) some process removes the dust in time spans well less than 1 million years or c) the rate of dust accumulation has increased by many orders of magnitude in the geologically recent past. None of these seem plausible. Your guess?”

That figure does seem high if the dust is simply accumulating on the lunar surface, responds Meghan Rosen, who reported on the new estimate in “Moon dust gathers surprisingly fast” (SN: 1/11/14, p. 6). “In fact, some scientists I spoke with were skeptical that so much dust could build up on the moon. But if it does, you’re right that it seems like there would be some mechanism to compact it.” Scientists still aren’t quite sure what happens to lunar dust, and whether it moves around or mostly stays still, says Rosen. “I’m hoping we learn more about the moon’s dust with results from NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, which launched in September 2013.”


In “Second bird flu wave ups pandemic worries” (SN: 3/22/14, p. 32), the chart of illnesses and deaths erroneously shows four more cases of flu, two each in weeks 46 and 47, than were confirmed. This error led to two others: Two extra cases were added to both the 50–59 and the 60–69 age categories in the “Illnesses by age” bar chart, and the “Illnesses by sex” pie chart should show 68 percent for males and 32 percent for females.

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