Exploring the Brain

“The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells… is one of the most magnificent–and mysterious–wonders of creation… It continues to intrigue scientists and layman alike”.

President George H.W. Bush, 1990

And thus the ‘Decade of the Brain’ was proclaimed in the nineties. But this period of intense study of the brain didn’t end after ten years; indeed, in this post I want to discuss neuroscience projects which have emerged recently, in this decade, and consider the question of their governance.

In April 2013, President Obama announced the ‘BRAIN initiative’ (‘Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies’), a long-term scheme to develop new technologies which will allow scientists to achieve a profound understanding of neuroscience – particularly the ‘Brain Activity Map’, an immeasurably complex map of neuronal networks.

Source: neuroblog.stanford.edu

key goal  the scientists hope to achieve thereby is the understanding and eventual treatment of a wide array of neurological and mental diseases, from Alzheimer’s disease to depression. Such a huge new project immediately poses the question – what is at stake? And this is indeed one area that has drawn criticism, with some arguing that individual disease projects may lose out; that it would be a more prudent use of limited resources (particularly financial) to focus on the diseases themselves, rather than studying the brain and hoping for a subsequent understanding of those diseases. Then again, perhaps seeking a complete understanding of neurophysiology and pathology (our knowledge of the brain is far from complete) will ultimately bring more benefit. So who decides where the money goes? The government decides – specifically the NIH (the US federal medical research body, which runs the Initiative), which awards grants to projects it deems worthy; external projects might feel they have been pushed aside so the NIH can focus on its own programme. Still, there may be much to be gained from large-scale funding for an innovative method of research.

Elsewhere, some have questioned whether the project is too vague to be viable. The neuroscientist Donald Stein criticises its ‘open-ended’ approach, with ‘no defined goals or endpoints’, and questions the validity and usefulness of brain mapping. Thus, to some, the Initiative is simply too much of a mystery in terms of what benefit it will bring, and how it will be achieved; some scientists are unhappy with this uncertainty, when there are more pressing issues in plain sight. Who is right here? One way to think of it is to use Sarewitz’s ‘technological fix’ model:  if we take the problem to be disease, and an incomplete understanding of their neurophysiology (often in neural diseases the root of the problem), does the Initiative satisfy the criteria? Firstly, it seeks to directly improve this sketchy understanding, so ‘embodies the essence of what needs to be done’, though some (like Stein) feel it lacks the ‘clear, technically feasible goals’ which this is predicated on; secondly, its results can be assessed in terms of, say, results of clinical trials of any treatments it yields – it’s clear when we have a successful treatment; thirdly, the Initiative will build on the existing core of neuroscience knowledge. Overall, from this it appears that the Initiative is a promising venture, though whether its methods and goals are clear and sensible (as is required for successful research) is debated.

While reading about the Initiative, I repeatedly came across another huge neuroscience project, which has garnered a much more direct and widespread criticism. The Human Brain Project (HBP) (the Initiative’s European ‘equivalent’), is a plan to build an artificial simulation of the brain, with ultimately similar ambitions to the latter. An open letter from hundreds of senior neuroscientists was sent to the European Commission (which funds the HBP), citing problems such as a ‘lack of flexibility and openness’. One key problem is that the HBP’s funding scheme entails no accountability, which is thus ‘likely to lead to corruption’. This requires proper regulation – vested financial interests, for example, must not be allowed to dictate who makes the decisions – and who is affected – in schemes with potential for such widespread implications. “They’ve gotten rid of anyone who objected to anything that they wanted to do”, asserts another signatory. This again suggests poor governance; decision-making should not be in the form of a dictatorship, in which only a high-level core decide how the research progresses.

Furthermore, we should also consider the ethical concerns posed by such projects. Nature worries that the new technology spawned by the Initiative might allow prediction of inevitable, yet untreatable, neurodegenerative diseases; who could gain access to this information? (This is reminiscent of a major controversy surrounding the Human Genome Project). One bioethicist also pointed to ethically-contentious issues such as transhumanism (transforming humans through techniques such as cognitive enhancement), whilst Kelly Bulkeley questions the diversity of people whose brains will be studied – we must always consider who wins and who loses, and if research is focused on too narrow a group of people, other groups may not reap the same benefits. President Obama, in a display of good governance, is aiming to deal with such issues from the outset through the Bioethics Commission, to reign in the technology according to ethical boundaries, and help to guide it to prevent those potential problems like unequal benefit.

This is a big field: other brain mapping projects exist, and more may follow! Schemes like the Initiative should be applauded for their noble aims and fantastic potential to alleviate disease – but of course, policy has an enormous role to play. Proper governance will help to prevent problems like corruption and ethical contention, to direct the research towards suitable goals, and ultimately, to achieve that great potential.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears”.

President Barack Obama, 2013 (link)

Hopefully one day, thanks to projects like the BRAIN Initiative, those three pounds will be a mystery no more.

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