As the ‘thinking’ goes – a billion here, a few billions there and eventually we’ll know how the brain works. The billions are Euros and dollars. The “there” are two projects aimed at learning how the human brain works. Even President Obama got into the act a while ago to mention in the State of the Union address about U.S. government funding for the Brain Activity Map project. Though at the moment this project is hardly more than an interesting article in the journal Neuron. The underlying assumption is that neuroscience is ready for big breakthroughs, if only there is enough money to coordinate and fund a massive research project – sort of like the all-out effort of putting man on the moon. Only in this case, substitute “explaining mental activity” for the “getting to the moon.”
If that sounds like an odd juxtaposition, it should. The Moon is a very real, measureable, and as we’ve seen, reachable object. Mental activity – with such useful but nebulous concepts like ‘thinking,’ ‘intelligence,’ ‘rationality,’ ‘memory,’ ‘cognition,’ or even (shudder) the soul – is elusive, controversial and vastly complex.
There is a similarity in the brain projects to the Human Genome Project of the 1990s. At the time the human genome project began, it seemed like mapping all of the genes in human DNA would provide a road map to cure thousands of diseases, unlock the secrets of human development and generally bring about a new level of understanding of the ‘blueprint’ of life. At the time, biochemists were just beginning to understand the chemical pathways by which DNA is created and goes about its work. As it turns out, this research led to the discovery of an entire field of study – epigenetics – that seeks to explain how genes are expressed and regulated. The knowledge of epigenetics vastly complicates the interpretation of DNA. For example, where medical researchers once thought that reading the human genome would lead to explaining and curing thousands of diseases, they now believe that perhaps 1 to 3 percent of diseases have a purely genetic cause. Otherwise, most diseases including cancer, heart and neurological disease are a complicated mixture of genetic, epigenetic and environmental causes. In short, the Human Genome Project was important, influential and worth the effort – but it was hardly the answer to all the mysteries of DNA or of human development. More