Brain activity map

The biggest news for neuroscientists in President Obama’s State of the Union Address was the announcement of the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project (e.g. see here and here). The goal of this project as outlined in this Neuron paper is to develop the technological capability to measure the spiking activity of every single neuron in the brain simultaneously. I used to fantasize about such a project a decade ago but now I’m more ambivalent. Although the details of the project have not been announced, people involved are hoping for 300 million dollars per year for ten years. I do believe that a lot will be learned in pursuing such a project but it may also divert resources for neuroscience towards this one goal. Given that the project is mostly technological, it may also mostly bring in new engineers and physicists to neuroscience rather than fund current labs. It could be a huge boon for computational neuroscience because the amount of data that will be recorded will be enormous. It will take a lot of effort just to curate this data much less try to analyze and makes sense of it. Finally, on a cautionary note, it could be that much of the data will be superfluous. After all, we understand how gases behave (at least enough to design refrigerators and airplanes, etc.) without measuring the positions and velocities of every molecule in a room. I’m not sure we would have figured out the ideal gas law, the Carnot cycle, or the three laws of thermodynamics if we just relied on an “Air Activity Map Project” a century ago. There is probably a lot of compression going on in the brain. If we knew how this compression worked, we could then just measure the nonredundant information. That would certainly make the BAM project a whole lot easier.

6 thoughts on “Brain activity map

  1. If there is a lot of compression going on in the brain, then is there any neurological condition that arises if compression is faulty?


  2. I think of compression as coarse-graining. Oliver Sacks (neurologist) has an article in NYR on ‘speak memory’—even cites Freud on the unconscious—people edit (Bayes) their memories all the time to stay current. (Conceivably that movie which is current on waterbordering etc. may also illustrate the updating/compression process, or various forced confessions).

    I wonder if the 300$ M /yr might be better spent on needed social investments—like a hedge fund which invests in a diversified portfolio of lottery tickets. (I think there is one where you invest in students, with a promise of a return based on their future earnings.)
    I am impressed by the big data/computational stuff (and airplanes too) but i’m not too sure where its going. E.g. they can do all this crowd sourcing and such but can’t even trace where a a firearm was bought, because of politics.


  3. p.s. i note this article mentions possible neural correlates with behavior. so maybe tho i am not a fan of big data, one could get the NRA to kick in sum cash or product to help study the mind. (I note that J Searle has a verbal tussle in NY Rev books with Koch etc. on pansych/ishi/sm).
    i guess another one would be my first NIH lecture on chaos theory and the brain; sponsored by phillip morris inc—god bless them.

    simkin has alot of interesting and funny papers.


  4. It would seem to me that such a condition is available here…

    It would also seem to me that we wouldn’t have music in human culture if we didn’t have signal compression in our brains (see above).

    Finally, I would suggest that your STDP spiking network could better model the (human) brain if you put in a few lines of code to discard the neurons that have only weak connections with each other, and maintain the neurons with the strongest connections, thus ending up with an efficient approximate processing network.
    (assuming the link above is eventually proven correct)


  5. […] Some are skeptical about the necessity to record individual neurons to understand the brain, as it is a complex system that is “more than its parts”. They make the analogy with gases: statistical mechanics work with a statistical approach, where there is no need to know the exact state of every single molecule. But a brain is really not a gas! I’m not sure that gases think and exhibit behaviors as complex as human thoughts. The analogy has its limits. Neurons are much more complex than molecules in a gas, and are much more tightly connected. Connections are not only local. There are multiscale spatiotemporal structures in the brain. Multiple layers, cortical columns, a wide variety of neuron types, short-term and long-term memory through synaptic plasticity, modulation by hormones and glial cells, etc. Neuronal wiring is not totaly random. Complex computations occur at different levels: micro-circuits, cortical columns, cortical areas, etc. There is definitely something to learn by recording the activity of thousands of neurons. Of course, statistical approaches are also relevant, but they need to be adapted. And this requires adapted experimental tools. […]


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