Pursuing the Neurome

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 capital funding.

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 flux—connections are being constantly modified based on experiences, learning, cellular growth and migration, and random factors. Plus, no two individuals—not even identical twins or clones—would 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.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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