Ambitious Project Seeks to Map Brain Activity

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At the convergence of biotechnology and nanotechnology, a new project to map the active human brain may eventually lead to an understanding of human perception and consciousness, as well as therapies for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and autism.

Brain Activity Map project

Backed by the Obama administration, the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project will span a decade with the goal of determining how brain cells collectively process information.

The U.S. already has one brain-mapping initiative under way, the Human Connectome Project. Launched in 2009, the goal of the Human Connectome Project is to construct a map of the complete structural and functional neural connections in vivo within and across individuals. The BAM project would go beyond an organizational and operational map and chart brain activity at the level of individual neurons.

“We propose to record every action potential from every neuron within a circuit,” write scientists, laying the groundwork for the BAM project in the journal Neuron last year [1]. To achieve this goal the scientists will need to study the connections between thousands to millions of cells while they are still alive — not something easy to accomplish.

With approximately 100 billion neurons, the brain is by far the most complex organ known. Although there is a good deal of knowledge regarding whole-brain activity patterns and single-cell structure and function, how “circuits” or “networks” of brain cells work together in both normal and disease states remains mostly a mystery. Scientists have not yet found a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons at once, non-invasively in living tissue.

Discussed in the March 2013 issue of the journal Science, the BAM research program is primarily technology-building and will develop three types of tools: those that can help simultaneously image or record the individual activity of neurons within a network; those that can control the activity of every neuron individually; and those that can store, manage, analyze, model and share large-scale imaging and physiology data [2].

Researchers suggest that these tools might include molecule-size wireless microcircuits that could be deployed, untethered, in living brains to monitor neuronal activity. DNA molecules could be synthesized to serve as a “ticker-tape” record.

The hope is that the BAM project will be an open, international collaboration of scientists, engineers and theoreticians throughout academia and industry. The plan is to start with small-brained invertebrates such as the worm, fly or leech, and then move up in brain complexity, ultimately working in humans. The authors write that within five years, it should be possible to monitor and control tens of thousands of neurons, and within 15 years, 1 million neurons — with “markedly reduced invasiveness”.

Although it is not yet clear how much federal money will actually be approved for the project, it won’t be cheap — at least $300 million a year, or $3 billion over a decade. However, during his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted brain research as a leading candidate for government funding and alluded to the positive effect a project like BAM could have on the economy. He likened the BAM project to the Human Genome Project, which cost taxpayers $3.8 billion, but had a significant return on investment, returning $140 for every dollar invested.

Ray Suarez from PBS NewsHour recently interviewed Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, which would coordinate much of the BAW project. You can watch the interview below.

The organizations slated to participate in the planning and funding of the BAM project include the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation, and private foundations, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


  1. Alivisatos et al. The brain activity map project and the challenge of functional connectomics. Neuron. 2012 Jun 21;74(6):970-4. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.006.
    View abstract
  2. Alivisatos et al. The Brain Activity Map. Science. 2013 Mar 7. [Epub ahead of print]
    View abstract
About the Author

Shula Pollard, Ph.D., is an experienced bioengineer in biomaterials and medical device design. She holds a Ph.D. in bioengineering from UCSD, where she designed and tested scaffolds for guided nerve regeneration. Since then she has worked in industry as a medical device product manager and most recently as a medical writer focusing on competitive intelligence, clinical trial data, and continuing medical education. She also teaches Introduction to Medical Devices, an online course offered through UCSD Extension.