Another Brain Activity Map post

brain2Lots of people are writing about the Brain Activity Map, the proposed $3 billion Neuroscience project. This is my first post — color me skeptical. Here I’ll discuss one reservation.

As far as I an tell, the project is not hypothesis driven.

The project is pure technology: use big science to record every cell in the human brain. Start with small brains and, as the project moves along, do bigger and bigger brains, finally recording from every cell in the human brain. Then what?

I love Neuroscience and I love advances in technology, but to put so many bucks into one direction of technology, without a strong guiding hypothesis seems foolish. I have no doubt that as the project moves along many things will be learned. But without a guiding hypothesis, will it be worth the costs?

This evening’s NY Times has its third article on BAM. This is the first to express reservations. The article also describes the roots of the project in a meeting held in London in Sept, 2011:

For two days the scientists mostly “talked at each other,” he (Ralph Greenspan) recalled. Then George M. Church, a Harvard molecular geneticist who helped start the original Human Genome Project in 1984, said, “All right I’ve heard all of you say what you can do, but I haven’t heard anyone say what you really want to do.”

“I want to be able to record from every neuron in the brain at the same time,” Dr. Yuste replied.

Yes, Dr. Yuste, I want to do that, too. But why? What are the questions? I don’t hear a hypothesis. Without one, its impossible to do cost/benefit analysis. Cross your fingers, click your heels, will magic happen? A billion here, a billion there, eventually you’re talking real money.

The inability to create a central hypothesis is due to the primitive state of current neuroscience. We really don’t know how the brain works, how you go from the disparate firing of millions of neurons, to the cohesive nature of thought and action. My guess is that such a unifying hypothesis is possible, but that generating the hypotheses will not require recording all cells at once. Better lots of smart minds on smaller projects to build a hypothetical framework. Perhaps then a big, unifying project can and should be attempted.

I may be wrong. There may be a crucial set of important hypotheses to be tested. I’d like to hear them.

Who is that Fiddler in the Subway?


Joshua Bell in the DC subway (Weingarten, Washington Post, 2007)

Bjorn Brembs (@brembs) tweeted a link to an amazing story by Gene Weingarten from the Washington Post (2007). Brembs called it, “an amazing behavioral experiment”, which it is. It is also a great read.

Pearls before Breakfast*

If a world-famous musician performed in the DC subways during commuter hours, would people notice? Sounds like a cute set up, a fairly typical playful story. Weingarten and crew were able to get Joshua Bell to help with the experiment. The suggested irony is that people pay big bucks for a seat at sold-out performances to hear Bell. What would happen if he played, unannounced, in an unexpected context? The prediction (ha ha) is that very few would stop or listen. And that’s what happened.

But the story is much deeper, and the depth of the story sheds light on aesthetics, attention, artistic performance and especially on the beauty of individual differences.

Continue reading

Optical Recording of Maps in the Hippocampus

(Updated with comparison to Mankin et al Feb 20; in red text)

“Long-term dynamics of CA1 Hippocampal Place Codes” is an important study published in the current issue of Nature Neuroscience. The paper is noteworthy in terms of technical achievement, theoretical implications and the potential for future work


Headstage on mouse brain. Ziv et al fig 1a.

First, the technical achievement. Ziv et al, working in Mark Schnitzer’s group at Stanford have managed to record the firing activity of hundreds of hippocampal neurons over a period of approximately one month. They do this by permanently mounting a miniature camera on the mouse’s head and using Ca+ imaging to identify the firing pattern of each neuron. Continue reading