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New Project Would Map The Human Brain


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

The Obama administration is considering backing a new project to map the human brain. And as first reported in today's New York Times, the project could propel brain research the way the Human Genome Project advanced genetic medicine. And the president may have been referring to the idea when he said this in his State of the Union Address last week.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy, every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's.

BLOCK: To learn more about what kinds of discoveries could come from a comprehensive road map of brain activity, we called on Dr. Story Landis. She's director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which will be involved in planning the project.

STORY LANDIS: The principle goal would be to understand how the human brain processes information to elicit actions and behaviors and encode memories and see. It's an effort to understand how the brain actually works; something that a number of people believe is the last great frontier in biomedical research.

BLOCK: Last great frontier, which implies that there's a whole lot that we just don't know, at this point. How much of the brain do we understand now and how much is still a mystery?

LANDIS: We understand how small pieces of the brain work. We're beginning to understand how the brain is wired up. We have an ongoing project called the Human Connectome Project, which is developing wiring diagrams for the brains of a thousand people. That project's been underway for two years and the first public data have just been released. People can now look at how sets of nerve cells, tens of nerve cells, hundreds of nerve cells interact, but the goal of the brain activity map would be to ramp that up tenfold or a hundred fold or a thousand fold.

BLOCK: We heard the president refer to Alzheimer's disease in the State of the Union Address. What other diseases or disorders would scientists be looking to get answers to through this brain activity map project?

LANDIS: A whole range of disorders. Autism is believed to be due to inadequate circuit processing. Parkinson's disease, psychiatric diseases, depression, schizophrenia, a whole host of disorders.

BLOCK: How comparable do you think the brain project would be to the Human Genome Project that President Obama referred to, mapping the full human genome?

LANDIS: I know geneticists won't find this a good analogy, but in my mind, mapping the human genome was an effort to put all the different nucleotides in order, to know what the sequence of those nucleotides was. And that, I think, is a much - although it was a massive task, is actually, in many ways, a simpler task than understanding how the trillions of nerve cells in the brain are wired up and interact to give you function.

BLOCK: On a basic level, could you say that with the Human Genome Project, there was an end point. They would know they were done in a way that with the brain, maybe you're never quite done.

LANDIS: That's an excellent observation and I would agree with that.

BLOCK: Is there new technology that's out there now that's enabling you to do things, learn things about the brain that maybe five, ten years ago you just couldn't do?

LANDIS: There have been extraordinary advances across a wide range of technologies that are used to study the brain. Perhaps the clearest example is, in terms of neuro-imaging, where we can now see the living human thinking brain at a degree of resolution that we would never even have imagined 10 years ago.

We also are making extraordinary strides in our ability to look at activity, in particular, sets of neurons. And people are developing optical tools that allow you to look at activity in specific circuits. The time is really ripe. There are wonderful opportunities that could be taken advantage of to push the frontier of brain sciences now.

BLOCK: Dr. Landis, thanks for talking with us today.

LANDIS: My pleasure. Thank you very much for being interested.

BLOCK: That's Dr. Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke with the National Institute of Health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.