Assessing scientific progress can be confusing. We've landed rovers on Mars and we've even sent space ships outside our solar system, but we have almost no idea what's at the bottom of Earth's oceans. And we've mapped the entirety of the human genome, yet we have only a rudimentary understanding of the human brain.
For the most part, we can't even see what's happening in our brains in real time, something that's essential if we want to understand how they actually work.
That's what the Brain Initiative — launched by President Obama with more than $300 million in funding, the EU's Human Brain Project, the Human Connectome Project, and other major scientific ventures are trying to change.
"If there’s one kind of target that we want to be able to say [we hit] at the end of 10 years, 12 years, it’s that we’re now able to see brain activity at a level that’s related to function, so at a level of cells or circuits at the speed of thought," said Thomas Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, in an interview at Smithsonian magazine's "The Future is Here" festival.
If there's one thing we hope this multimillion dollar initiative accomplishes in the next 10 or 12 years it's to develop the ability to see what's happening in our brains as we go about our lives — because that's the key to discovering how the brain actually works.
The Connectome Project is trying to map the brain right now, trying to see how the 86 billion neurons in our skulls, each with 1,000 connections, fit together, but even with that, we'd still need ways to understand how those cells interact in time and space in a dynamic way. The map is just a framework, but it doesn't tell us what everything does.
So far, we don't even have the tools to see what's happening.
We're getting closer though. Insel explained that researchers who were able to watch mouse brains (we have an easier time observing them) used that information to figure out how mammals, ourselves included, navigate through space. That research, which explains why we're not lost all the time, won three researchers the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2014.
Insel thinks that just like the 20th century was when we figured out how to deal with infectious diseases, this century is when we can unravel the mysteries of the brain. It's going to take a lot and we don't know how we'll get there, yet. But we never know that when investigating the unknown.
In Bill Gates's book "The Road Ahead," he wrote: "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten."
That, according to Insel, is what we should keep in mind when we look at what we'll learn from the Brain Initiative.
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