When the federal government initiated the Human Genome Project in
1990, few people could have anticipated the full range of benefits
it would bring to the biotechnology industry. Within a decade, both
public and private research teams had made enough progress to hasten
the discovery of several new pharmaceutical compounds. The effort
also produced a tremendous amount of public awareness and venture
The Human Brain Project, spearheaded by the National Institute of
Mental Health, with the support of 14 other federal agencies, has
produced nowhere near the public interest or VC investment that came
out of the Human Genome Project. But it many ways, it could yield
even more profound scientific advances and commercial successes.
The analogies between the HGP and the HBP are not hard to draw. Both
projects seek to develop a centralized store of information on key
components of human existence. Each has attracted both government-sponsored
research teams and privately funded ventures. And both efforts have
enabled scientists to decipher more readily the result, or expression,
of a particular entry in the database.
For engineers using electrodes and signal processing to stimulate
and record from the nervous system, this presents a double benefit:
each pulse or trace recorded or produced is a potential contribution
to the database. Each piece of information already in the database
offers a clue for interpreting future signals.
Of course the concept of producing a complete map of human brain function
is much more complicated and data-intensive than producing a genome
map. In the case of a database of nervous system connections, for
instance, a researcher might want to access a particular morphological
record by brain region, neurotransmitter, behaviors (or dysfunctions)
in which this element is active, or a host of genetic, molecular,
or cellular attributes.
Moreover, unlike the human genome, the neurome is in a
state of constant fluxconnections are being constantly modified
based on experiences, learning, cellular growth and migration, and
random factors. Plus, no two individualsnot even identical twins
or cloneswould have the same neurome.
And those differences, perhaps, may produce less fear and concern
from the general public than did genomics with its associated grab
bag of stem cells, reproduction issues, and even health insurance
worries. As we learn more about the neural basis for our own behavior
and cognitive functions, we learn how less deterministic our neural
existence is, compared to our genetic blueprint.
More profoundly, the effort to catalog nervous system attributes and
their effects will enable multidisciplinary teams of researchers to
devise new diagnostic tests for neurological and psychiatric diseases
and disorders, and new treatments for those diseases and disorders.
And since the Human Brain Project necessitates an understanding of
the nervous system that spans several levels of organization from
molecular and genetic to circuit and behavioral, it will engender
a new degree of cooperation, perhaps even joint venturing, between
bio/pharma firms and device manufacturers in the neurotechnology space.
Editor and Publisher