The Human Brain is Bigger than Science Can Map

by | Jun 14, 2022 | Neuroscience

With remarkable discoveries in the brain, scientists have proposed the mammoth attempt to map the human brain, which defies the mind by its size: 100 bn neurons with 10s of thousand synapses that total more than a quadrillion or 100 trillion connections to make up the connectomes. Computer scientists thought that through reverse engineering they could explain the fundamental rules of cognition, understand mental illness, and demonstrate the biological differences between humans from animals. There have been two attempts at brain mapping, first by NIH and a second by U. of Chicago w/ Argonne Labs.

In June 2014, NIH (National Institute of Health) presented its BRAIN 2025 Report with its projected goals that outlined “timetables, milestones, and cost estimates.”  To achieve such ambition, NIH chose the best scientists from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

However, serious struggles have arisen with NIH’s Human Brain Project (HBP).  Stefan Theil wrote an article on Oct. 1, 2015 for Scientific America with an introductory outline of some issues.

  • In 2013 the European Commission awarded neuroscientist Henry Markram $1.3 billion to pursue an audacious goal.
  • Markram’s initiative is now in disarray. Critics blame HBP management and their unreasonably ambitious goals.
  • Blame for the HBP’s woes rests with the funders in Brussels, who put politics ahead of science with poor oversight.
  • The American BRAIN Initiative has shown that such big projects can succeed. The HBP is now reorganizing for that.

The second attempt was reported in a 2018 article written by Rob Mitchum, who is the communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

Reverse engineering the human brain is one of the great scientific challenges of our time, and scientists at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory are combining new techniques in microscopy, neurobiology, and computing to reveal the brain’s inner mechanisms in unprecedented detail.

Mitchum made a curious statement that made the mapping of the brain seem like a very doable goal but it’s still only theory at this point:

Treating the brain as a machine is not a far-fetched metaphor. In the abstract, the brain is an electrochemical computer, operating on electrical impulses and chemical signals sent between cells. Though the individual pieces may be small, on the scale of mere nanometers, drawing the wiring diagram for this machinery is theoretically possible.

This joint collaboration between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory engaged Marayanan Kasthuri, MD, Ph.D. and Peter Littlewood, Ph.D., also of Argonne Labs.  Mitchum ends his summary article on the University of Chicago and Argonne Labs with a remark from John Maunsell, Ph.D., another colleague in the project, about “unlocking the new science” of mapping the brain:

I must categorically dismiss the claim that it’s beyond our understanding. It is complex, it’s fantastically complex. But just because we’re not there yet doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there. And you know the whole history of science is just breaking down these walls one after the next.”

As of Dec. 2019 per Matt Wood, the U. of Chicago seems to be quietly moving ahead with its brain mapping project.

A second grant awards $324,000 to support neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri, PhD, to image all the cells in the terminal ileum and the colon over the next year. Kasthuri is known for his work studying the connectome, a detailed map of connections between every neuron in the brain. During the course of that research, his team has developed techniques to prepare samples of brain tissue, automate the production of imaging by X-ray and electron microscopy, and process the resulting data with software algorithms.

Jordana Cepelewicz, on Aug. 24, 2021, published a fascinating essay in Quanta Magazine, that warns against too strict a parallel between what scientists consider brain categories and the actual dynamic regions of the human brain that overlap and are “complex and content-dependent.”  Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University insists that placing a strong parallel between the “old-fashion way of mapmaking and the function of different networks of neurons is just wrong.”

Cf. –

Take-away: The human brain is an organic dynamic entity not confined by computerized categories and operations.