Brain explosion: big neuroscience teams up with Obama

Denyse O’Leary
8 March 2013
Reproduced with Permission

On Valentine's Day this year, Leil Lowndes, author of How to Create Chemistry with Anyone, informed us in the Wall Street Journal that

Neuroscience has discovered that the heart has very little to do with romance. For accuracy you should send your main squeeze a Valentine's Day card with the image of a squishy gray blob evocative of a rotting cauliflower - the brain - because that's where romance really resides. And instead of saying "I love you," the knowledgeable lover would say, "Darling, dopamine floods my caudate nucleus" every time I look at you. Love and attraction are all tangled in the convoluted wiring of the brain.

Later, she informs us, hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin rule. She thinks we are naive not to see the chemical base of relationship, the neuroscience of love.

One problem with her proposed new approach is that it would quickly end almost all likely budding relationships. Another is that it doesn't owe much to the staggering complexities of real neuroscience.

A Nature neuroscience editor weighed in the same day on this sort of holiday bonbon story with relevant qualifiers: No one region of the brain is responsible for love. No one hormone is either. Hormones are responsible for promoting a variety of moods, perceived as positive or negative: For example, oxytocin can promote love, envy, or schadenfreude.

Surely, it is relevant that different people may experience a desire for Valentine love in different ways. A mature widow who is looking for a new life companion may experience it differently from a pretty but frivolous young woman who seeks another trophy heart, or a sole support mom who hopes for rescue from a difficult life situation. If they truly all registered the same brain or hormone states, it would be a blow to neuroscience as a source of information. Common sense tells us that these individuals are hardly in the same position with respect to what we call "love".

Even so, in the recent State of the Union address, President Obama has said he will commit the United States to a ten-year project to build a comprehensive map of the activity of the brain. He believes that the proposed Brain Activity Map is an economic gold mine, arguing that the Human Genome Project, for example, produced $141 in economic activity for every $1 invested.

But, as John Markoff reports in the New York Times:

Many neuroscientists are skeptical that a multiyear, multibillion dollar effort to unlock the brain's mysteries will succeed. "I believe the scientific paradigm underlying this mapping project is, at best, out of date and at worst, simply wrong," said Donald G. Stein, a neurologist at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "The search for a road map of stable, neural pathways that can represent brain functions is futile."

It is easy to point to the moonwalk and the human genome map as evidence that if we can throw enough science at a problem, we can crack it. Actually, that depends on the nature of the problem.

Apart from its staggering complexity (85 to 100 billion neurons), the brain is semi-solid and always changing. Yes, the moon is always changing too - but not much and always predictably. The genome may change slightly over time, but not the way brains can. That's why Stein thinks that the paradigm is out of date.

Right now, researchers hope to work their way up from a worm with 302 neurons (7000 connections) to a mammal, eventually, with one million neurons -- a far stretch from the goal.

If the research succeeded, it might result in better prosthetics or speech technology for paralytics. But it might also, as Markoff notes, result in better methods of mind control.

Consider: Prenatal diagnostics mainly resulted in abortion of affected children, not in the development of treatments for their diseases. Once the ability to diagnose the disease was combined with the legal right to get rid of the unborn child, there turned out to be little motive to pursue treatment. And the technology has been used, in some parts of the world, to get rid of girls as such, on a society-wide basis. In the same way, mind control projects could turn out to be much better funded than prostheses, depending on the government in power. No, this is not paranoia, it is just history as if the reality of human priorities mattered.

Two questions raised by neuroscientist Christopher Chabris are whether One Big Project is the right approach in this case and also whether the economics add up. The problem with One Big Project, he notes, is that

If the BAM goes forward, other areas are likely to get less funding, and other neuroscience and behavioral science projects will likely be among the first to be reduced. Moreover, a single mega-project is likely to supplant many smaller projects. Is our neuroscience money best spent on one project costing, say, $5 billion, or instead a thousand projects of $5 million each, or ten thousand projects with $500K budgets? Gary Marcus has a suggestion for five $1 billion projects. Which funding strategy is likely to result in more important discoveries, as viewed from the perspective of the next generation of scientists looking back? Maybe the BAM, but maybe not. The answer is hardly obvious to me.

It certainly isn't obvious. A big project is only better if bigness confers an advantage. Sometimes, small is beautiful.

In any event, with respect to the economics, Chabris points out that the President's $141 return claim was sourced from a company that makes the equipment that life scientists use. It may be true, but who knows? So, in terms of Big Projects, the third time may not be lucky. It may not even turn out to advance the cause of science or help society. We must think carefully about the consequences of buying into a scheme of mapping the brain as if it were some comparatively fixed entity, like a mountain range.