All the President's Neuroscientists
A phrenological cross-section of a man's head, illustrating the idea that the brain processes thoughts in different locations according to their type, circa 1880.
In 1973, during a panel discussion on the ethics of brain surgery, a Yale neurophysiologist named Jose Delgado argued that the time was ripe for the widespread use of corrective neural implants. "The question," said Dr. Delgado, "rather than, What is man? should be, What kind of man are we going to construct?" Dr. Delgado was fond of publicity stunts, and had earlier used a remotely activated neural implant to stop a charging bull in its tracks.
My grandfather, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, was also on the panel. His career as a neurosurgeon had by that time straddled five decades, and he'd witnessed a variety of once-promising treatments, such as the lobotomy and other psychosurgeries, gain widespread acceptance before falling spectacularly from grace. His experiences in the operating room had taught him firsthand the dangers of tampering with things perhaps best left un-tampered with, and knocking out an animal with the push of a button did not strike him as a novelty that would necessarily lead to the betterment of mankind. He waited for his younger colleague to finish, then responded.
"With all due respect to Dr. Delgado," he said, "I work almost entirely in humans, and we are more aware of the disastrous effects that sometimes occur in neurosurgery."
I thought about this exchange as I was reading up on President Obama's hugely ambitious, quite expensive, and yet-to-be-officially-announced Brain Activity Map Project. The first public hint of the project came during last week's State of the Union address, when Obama, after noting that the federal government's investment in the Human Genome Project during the eighties and nineties had led to a 140-fold return on investment, declared that "today our scientists are mapping the human brain," and that "now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the space race." Since then, more details have begun to trickle out. The project, which is slated to cost north of $3 billion, is already well into its planning stages, and funding for it will probably be part of next month's federal budget proposal. A handful of scientists have come forward and revealed that they have been instrumental in the project's planning. Interestingly, most of these same scientists collaborated last year on an article in the academic journal Neuron. The article is called, "The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics." There's every reason to believe that this article is a template for the soon-to-be-unveiled initiative. As such, it's worth a close read.
It begins by reiterating the ancient and confounding truth that the brain is a stubbornly opaque beast. Even with all the imaging advances of recent decades— EEGs to CTs to fMRIs to PETs and beyond — we still lack the tools to directly and meaningfully observe the fundamental neural circuitry that underpins whatever a particular brain is doing at any given moment. But there is hope on the horizon. A number of promising tools—the most promising ones still firmly in the theoretical stage of development—may soon enable us to document the activities of countless live neurons in real-time, ultimately allowing us to reconstruct "the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits." This could offer better ways of understanding exactly how schizophrenic or autistic or other atypical brains differ from normal ones, and perhaps suggest strategies for righting them.
About halfway through the paper, the authors lay out a rough roadmap. Within five years, using existing technologies, they believe they could chart a complete functional map of a tiny-brained — it's got 302 neurons, as compared to your roughly 86 billion — nematode called C. elegans, and within ten years they believe they could do the same with the somewhat bigger-brained drosophilia fruitfly. But Obama isn't dropping space race comparisons because he thinks we have a desperate need to grok the brains of worms and bugs. The heart of the project, its final frontier, is the human brain. Within fifteen years, its planners write, they will be ready to "proceed toward primates," and then add that "we do not exclude the extension of the BAM Project to humans."
And here's where things get sketchy. The technologies required to map the brains of lower life forms won't cut it with us. Our brains are too big, too complicated. While nanoprobes and other extensions of existing technology might get us part of the way, in order to get deep inside we'll have to invent an entirely new class of what the Neuron paper calls Wireless and Synthetic Biology Approaches.
Two things should leap out from reading the above quote. First, the redundant and distracting use of the words "transient" and "transiently," a heavy-handed way to assure us that these untethered, internal brain monitors don't have to be permanent, trust us. Second, note the reference to "possibly programmable stimulation." Let's be clear about what that means: These probes they envision injecting into human brains will not only be able to record the firing of vast networks of individual neurons, but will possibly be able to control the firing of those individual neurons as well. Later in the paper, they come back to a variant of this same point, writing that they anticipate the project will foster the "development of novel devices and strategies for fine control brain stimulation."
Of course, you could argue that these neuronal stimulators would just be more highly tuned versions of the implanted brain electrodes that the FDA already approves for the treatment of certain conditions like Parkinson's disease. There's a huge difference, though. It's one thing to give a coarse and leveling shock to a relatively huge swath of dysfunctional brain tissue. It's something else altogether to be able to wirelessly and independently stimulate every single neuron in the insanely complex intertwined circuits that make up the human brain. The Brain Activity Map Project wants to understand how our brains do what it is that they do, but it just so happens that the technology the project will develop to gain this understanding could also be used to make our brains do whatever they want. Wirelessly. From a distance. The truth is, most major scientific breakthroughs, like the human minds that give birth to them, have light and dark sides. And some of those dark sides are darker than others.
The project's leaders are not blind to this darkness. At the end of the paper, they note that the project has "potential ethical ramifications," and that these include "issues of mind-control." To assuage concerns about these ramifications, they write, it's going to be up to the scientists participating in the project to engage "diverse sets of stakeholders and the lay public early and thoughtfully." Speaking of those stakeholders, is it any surprise that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will reportedly be involved, or that Google and Microsoft have already taken part in some of the preparatory groundwork?
I'm not saying that the President's brain-mapping project is a bad idea. As he put it in his State of the Union address, it could help "unlock the answers to Alzheimer's," among other worthy goals. But I do think it's worth considering that this same project is also a DARPA-associated endeavor that could lead to the development of the first truly sci-fi caliber mind-control technology.
When Obama mentioned the statistics about the huge return on investment provided by the Human Genome Project, he was borrowing from a 2010 study that tried to break down the various ways that project had rippled through the American economy. Companies of all sorts, from ones trying to develop new cancer drugs to ones promising to help you flesh out your family tree, have ridden the genomics wave. Looking towards the future, if the Brain Activity Map Project survives the upcoming budget debate (and perhaps a much-needed ethical debate), you've got to wonder what sorts of companies will benefit from its success.