Brain Mapping... the Next Big Thing

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Thursday, 30 May 2013 22:58

“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy.”  Obama

When I first heard that statement my reaction was to fact other words... Google it! Perhaps that statement from the President during the State of the Union was not 100% accurate depending on how you look at the numbers but there is no denying that the Human Genome Project has been a great investment. Will brain mapping be the same?

What exactly is brain mapping? I am not a scientist so I will not attempt to describe the intricate details.  However, I believe it is important to understand what it is and what the findings could potentially mean for us as individuals, for healthcare providers, and for healthcare systems as a whole.  The human brain has over 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections between them. Mapping out the brain will prove to be quite a task but the hope is to discover what drives thinking and behavior and shed some light on the many neurological diseases we are faced with every day. The Obama administration and the National Institute of Health have agreed to issue a $100 million investment to map the brain called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative .

This audacious project will develop and use tools that will allow researchers to monitor and record the connections made by the neurons. The technology required to monitor the trillions of connections being transmitted in the brain is being developed as the project moves forward. Laboratories such as the Van Essen Lab from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO are developing a software to record and analyze the data. Caret, developed by Van Essen Lab, is one of the main tools being used to help with the BRAIN Initiative. Caret has two main programs caret5 and caret_command. Caret5 is an interactive tool used to manipulate and view neuroimaging data and caret_command allows the processing of the data. At this point our current technology may not seem advanced enough to undertake this project. Although it seems an overwhelming task, great discoveries are made by takings risks. We will improve technology in general by trial and error so this initiative can only improve our current knowledge and technology.

The benefits of brain mapping may take years to trickle down to us as individuals or to the provider level, as the Human Genome Project did. This project will provide a wealth of information and much needed knowledge on the most important and complicated part of our body. Being able to understand the connections within our brain will give us an insight as to why things happen and how we can manipulate those connections to improve our health. Current technology allows us to control certain things, for example prosthetic limbs, but we are very limited to the little we know and understand of the brain. Once we are able to understand all the connections we should have more control over how those connections are made. Ideally we will be able to control and make new connections as needed. So when a prosthetic limb is attached the individual will not only be able to control certain functions but actually have full control over it, which will be amazing!

The research and findings from this project will also give healthcare providers insight when it comes to diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer's and PTSD, among others.  Understanding how certain diseases function within the brain will allow researchers to explore different ways to stop them from growing. We can expect the information could lead to better prevention screenings, new treatment options, cures and overall reduced healthcare costs.

At this point brain mapping is in its infancy but hopes are high! As the project evolves so will  the technology used. The more data we collect and share with other scientists the more we will be able to get out of this research so hopefully sharing will be a big part of this project. Hopefully understanding how our brain works will lead to cures for Alzheimer's, dementia, and PTSD and many other diseases giving people better, longer lives!

~ Zoraida Kincaid