100 million dollars to create a map of the human brain and how it works is an incredibly audacious project. If one accepts the primary aspect of being human as the ability to think, this project is looking for and mapping out what it is to be human. What makes us us?
When we spent money to break the code of DNA, it felt doable to this uneducated in biology outsider because we were looking a relatively fixed length code. We were looking to match what we saw in multiple observations looking for similarities between observations and part of DNA codes in front of us. It seemed like an expansive algebra problem where with enough observations, we could figure out the variables. I will grant the numbers were huge, but the process seemed fixed from a mathematical standpoint. We spent 2.7 billion dollars for the code. Now we have a proposal to map the brain, and we fund it with a small fraction of what it cost us to break the DNA code.
I am a bit skeptical as an outsider, but I am hopeful. My skepticism comes from acknowledging a few hurdles that seem insurmountable at the start.
1) The brain/neural network is a complex system. The whole theory of complex systems came from studying the brain and neural pathways. Inherent in the theory of complex systems is the impossibility of predicting the impact to the entire system of removing any one peace. We see this all the time with MS. Patients like me get MRIs regularly. With the dozen plus lesions on my brain and at least a half dozen more on my spine, I should be nowhere near as functional as I have been. The truth is my complex system has been able to find work arounds. So when mapping my brain, where exactly should we put function A?
2) This leads to the next hurdle, the theory of plasticity of the brain. When we look at functional MRI’s we can see brain activity and correlate the location of the activity with the processing of a given stimuli, but is this always where sights are processed and love felt? What about kids with severe seizure issues who are given a hemispherectomy (half of their brain is removed)? How is it they learn to function? If our brains are capable of simply switching where a function takes place, how can we functionally map the brain, tying parts of the brain to a function of the nervous system?
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3) Funding – We are undertaking a huge project, one with the potential to unwrap many of humankind’s biggest secrets. We are doing it in uncertain budget times, and we are proposing to accomplish it with less than a tenth what we spent on our DNA code. We are looking because the potential payoffs are too big not to start, but we should do so with eyes open to the potential of running out of money before any of the keys are found. The brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons. Figuring out the interactions between each of them is no small task, and 10 cents per neuron will be well spent if all it comes up with is an approach to accomplish the original goal.
4) If the previous three hurdles seemed big, I think this last one is the hardest and most important to pass. I have not seen a single definition of a success or a goal. Big successful projects of the past had a defined end point whether it was map the human genome or set foot on the moon. What is success? It seems about as set as the location in the brain of whatever it is which makes us us.
As a semi-related issue, O is convinced he is not fully “us.” His current belief is he is half-alien, and he has “human parents and birth parents.” His alien parents did something to him to make him live like a human, but he has an extra tooth, is small for his age, and he is double jointed and…..He is convinced he is an alien. I think it is a likely a subconscious protection to explain why he feels different from everyone in the family and world, a reaction to being adopted. He probably heard somebody refer to his parents as “illegal aliens” at some point. At least that is the only explanation I can come up with for an exact origin. Still, he is creative enough that I do not doubt it could come from the same place as his ghost friends about whom he remains very defensive when defending their existence. Being an alien is just a way he expresses how he feels separate from the rest of the world. He recognizes our love for him and returns it. I think whatever his biological origin, be it human or alien, he is feeling a very human need to define himself in his relationships with the world around him.
Given his history of being a premi born at 26 weeks and later having a brain bleed affecting his frontal lobes, I wonder if some day doctors will be able to look at the location and severity of a brain injury to explain and predict the impact of injuries like his. For now, I simply think about how lucky he is to be alive, smart, and thriving. Come to think of it, I am not sure any scientific finding could change this thought.