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Scientists Begin Mapping the Brain

kdawson posted about 5 years ago | from the writing-it-down-in-silicon dept.

Biotech 129

Raindance writes "A team at the University of Utah has unveiled a system to map and digitize brain tissue — thus fulfilling one of the long-standing holy grails of neuroscience and enabling for the first time in-depth analysis of how mammalian neural networks function. So far, maps for the entire retina and related neural networks have been released; no ETA on a full-brain digital reconstruction yet. (One of the lead authors hangs out here on Slashdot.)"

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129 comments

The inevitable result... (0)

brian0918 (638904) | about 5 years ago | (#27494859)

I can see the inevitable result now. They'll get the whole thing mapped, petabytes of data, the position and connection of every neuron to thousands of other neurons will be known... and they'll be left to say, "now what?"

This may be of use for diseases, but the greatest use - understanding consciousness - is still well beyond simply mapping the brain.

Re:The inevitable result... (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27494969)

Once they have it mapped, they can warehouse the data, and come along in a few hundred years and run it in a simulation.

Seriously.

There's certain schools of thought that subscribe to the view that if you can save a complete state of the brain, there's no reason why, with exponentially increasing compute, you couldn't come along later and start it running again...

If you are going to start talking about the inevitable result, you need to think about patterning consciousness, and some big philosophical issues...

Re:The inevitable result... (3, Interesting)

brian0918 (638904) | about 5 years ago | (#27495071)

There's certain schools of thought that subscribe to the view that if you can save a complete state of the brain, there's no reason why, with exponentially increasing compute, you couldn't come along later and start it running again

That would be determinism, and would require precise measurements for future reproducibility - the further into the future you go, the more precise they would have to be to remain accurate to reality. And it in no way accounts for stimuli, the very things of which one is conscious. So maybe you could restart a simulation, and it could last a short time, but it would not remain accurate long, and would not be able to handle changes in input.

Re:The inevitable result... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495607)

>That would be determinism It would require the complete brain state be captured. It would not 'be' determinism. If the brain had some source of random input, that could be simulated. If the brain already is deterministic, then it's not a problem. >and would require precise measurements for future >reproducibility It would require precise measurements to reproduce the brain state, yes. >the further into the future you go, the more >precise they would have to be to remain accurate >to reality. It's not meaningful to talk about 'remaining accurate to reality' in this context. However, I do see what you are getting at. The brain experiences outside interference at the moment. But there are thresholds, and feedback loops etc in the system. >So maybe you could restart a simulation, and it >could last a short time, but it would not remain >accurate long, Again, 'accurate' in what sense? It would diverge from the original wetware execution quite quickly of course - if for no other reason than different stimuli - but that doesnt make it 'inaccurate', just different. The idea that it only would last a short time is flawed - if you increase the electrical/chemical/magnetic/ionising interference in a real life human brain, as long as it stays below certain thresholds, the brain functions fine. There are thresholds of accuracy below which the measurement inaccuracy doesn't matter. >and would not be able to handle >changes in input. Of course it would, just the inputs would have to be interfaced in an appropriate form. But we are talking about this happening several hundred years in the future.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

Cyberax (705495) | about 5 years ago | (#27496949)

But digital revolution taught us that precise duplication of information is easy. If this information is digital in its nature.

It might very well be that each neuron can be accurately characterized by several numbers (I'm not including connectivity information here). In this case it might be possible to accurately emulate brain.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 5 years ago | (#27498337)

Actually it was the inaccuracies in copying digital information that lead to the initial forays into chaos theory. Some people were doing a weather simulation and stopped it. They printed up the information and let it run. Later they re-entered the information and let it run again. This time the results were different. It turned out to be related to rounding. The computer was displaying only three decimal places, but was calculating much more. That miniscule difference between what was calculated and what was displayed was enough to alter the simulated weather significantly.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

fractoid (1076465) | about 5 years ago | (#27498681)

No it wouldn't. He's not talking about re-running the simulation and it outputting the exact same thought patterns etc. as the original brain, he's jus talking about running a simulation of a brain from a stored model that would behave similarly to the original brain (as I read it anyway).

What do you mean by it not "remaining accurate long" and "not handling changes in input"? If it's a brain (simulated or real) then it changes its internal state in some structured way while it handles input, that's what a brain _does_.

Re:The inevitable result... (2, Insightful)

MrEricSir (398214) | about 5 years ago | (#27495255)

Exponentially increasing != infinite

This is a MASSIVE mistake that sci-fi (aka syfy) writers make all the time when talking about computer power. Just because you have a lot, and you will have a lot more later, doesn't mean you have enough to compute everything.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

im_thatoneguy (819432) | about 5 years ago | (#27497203)

Actually speaking purely hypothetically it is possible to not only compute everything... but everything x2. Although it depends on your definition of everything. If there is somesort of subspace it's entirely possible you could put a computer in an alternate universe which makes our own look microscopic. Based on scale if there was a way to use this alter-dimensional computer you could theoretically build a system larger than our universe.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

Kjella (173770) | about 5 years ago | (#27497527)

Of course not computing power to do everything. But you know that:

1) The brain would be a lower bound - even though we don't understand it, we know it's possible. Maybe we can't do it with little pieces of silicon but at worst we could build organic computers of the same primitives our minds are made up of. Unless the brain got magic soul bits we should be able to duplicate anything it does with enough effort.

2) We know evolution doesn't find the optimal solution, just whatever evolutionary path works. We should be able to design away parts that have no modern function.

3) We already know that certain things computers do better. We could do organic-silicon hybrid brains that'd be more efficient.

4) We could probably apply known techniques like ECC, parity checks and such to enhance reliability and accuracy.

6) My brain got rather limited space and support system, there's no reasons we couldn't build "brains" as large as data centers, just to win on sheer scale.

I don't think that any computer will ever break 256 bit AES encryption by brute force - the stars would go out first, but I think there's pretty clear indications that well over human brain power should be well within the possible. Though despite our apparently huge progress, the technology might still be centuries off as we're still only scratching the surface.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

fractoid (1076465) | about 5 years ago | (#27498777)

In terms of pure bit rate of calculations, we should have commodity desktop computers capable of outperforming our own brains within a decade. This paper [transhumanist.com] (from 1997, but I doubt human brains have changed much since then) estimates our brainpower at 100 million MIPS, or 10^14 calculations per second. By comparison a Radeon HD4870 x2 graphics card is 2.4 TFlops (2.4 million MIPS at 1 flop/instruction), or roughly 1/5th of a human brain.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | about 5 years ago | (#27495259)

Plus every year the scanning tech will get better and better, maybe someday they will beable to do scanning to backup people regualrly like we backup our songs on our iPod.

Re:The inevitable result... (0, Troll)

holmstar (1388267) | about 5 years ago | (#27495869)

Back someone up? for what purpose? so that we can have a convincing simulation of the person should they die in an accident? It won't be the person you remember, just a mechanical copy.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

LUH 3418 (1429407) | about 5 years ago | (#27496829)

Well, if you could also somehow recreate the person's body, and fabricate a new brain based on your measured parameters (be it a biological or computerized brain), this would bring potential immortality to reality.

As for the copy problem... It's true that should a person die and their body and brain be replicated, they wouldn't be the original. However... If it was a very accurate copy, they couldn't tell, you couldn't tell, so why should it really matter? If you had a girlfriend, she died, and a copy was made, you could still potentially both life your life as if it had never happened.

Furthermore, consider the idea that a very large proportion of the molecules making the neurons of your brain have been replaced over your lifetime... You *are not* the same person you were 10 years ago, from a physical standpoint... Does that make you not you?

This tool may well never be accurate enough to back people's brain up (not to mention that how neurons are connected might not be the only important factor, some people have suggested that our memories are chemically encoded). However, in the short term , this tool has an incredible potential just for studying the brain and trying to understand it better. It could finally allow us to create a fairly detailed map of how all the different areas of the brain are connected together.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

psychodelicacy (1170611) | about 5 years ago | (#27496541)

I'm amazed no-one's mentioned Greg Egan's Permutation City yet - this is pretty much the concept of the novel. What happens when you can save a whole person onto a computer and let them loose in a virtual reality? And what happens if the original of the copy is still alive and controlling the copy's ability to interact with its surroundings?

Great novel.

Re:The inevitable result... (4, Interesting)

thepotoo (829391) | about 5 years ago | (#27495053)

Bullshit. A complete map of a brain of someone with and someone without gene XYZ will tell us about the role played by gene XYZ without the ethical or temporal problems associated with creating an XYZ knockout. A neural network running a simulation of a human brain would be a Turing-complete strong AI. Throw a evolutionary algorithm onto this, and you can start looking at where different types of selective breeding could take humans, or the long-term effects drugs could have on personality.

That's off the top of my head; there'll be a million and one uses for this eventually (ever wanted to live forever inside a computer?). Besides, this is in the preliminary stages, they are still doing stuff like classifying synapses by hand. By the time this is workable, we may already know what consciousness is.

Re:The inevitable result... (5, Insightful)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 5 years ago | (#27495291)

A neural network running a simulation of a human brain would be a Turing-complete strong AI

I understand what you're saying here but there are a lot of non-trivial hurdles to get over, even assuming you can accurately scan and simulate the brain.

First, the brain also includes a lot of chemical transmitters which we really don't understand the function of yet. You would have to include them in your model as well, including the ones that don't originate in the brain.

Second, you have to interpret the simulated neuron firing into something that you can actually understand. It's pretty pointless for your brain-on-a-hard-drive to be saying 'hello' if you can't understand what it's saying. An accurate simulation of my mind would have all the neurons that control my breathing, lips, tongue, and vocal cords firing like crazy, but good luck figuring out what I'm saying.

Third, you have to be able to supply meaningful input into the brain. You're essentially talking about submitting a consciousness (assuming your simulation is 100% accurate) to the most horrible sensory deprivation imaginable. In order for your research to be useful, you would have to supply it realistic input (including feedback based on it's output) otherwise the brain would change drastically just from that.

Re:The inevitable result... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495509)

Actually, you dont have to learn all the interfaces.
Just learn how hearing or vision works. Then find one connection that is responsible for a muscle we are good at using - say a finger. Feed the brain a visual story of how we had a car accident, and lost hearing touch etc. Show him that if he moves the finger up we'll understand it as a yes, if down its a no. Then you can start talking.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

FLoWCTRL (20442) | about 5 years ago | (#27495703)

All good points; it's a big project. Mapping is an important, but not the final step.

The sensory deprivation aspect raises an interesting ethical problem -- if the simulated brain is in fact 100% accurate, then wouldn't running it without normal sensory input be the same as torturing a sentient person?

I suspect that part of creating a functional full-brain simulation will have to involve it's being embedded in a robot (or biological body) which can supply the expected sensory environment.

Re:The inevitable result... (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495315)

Problem is, you'll never live inside a computer.
A copy of you could, of course. One can well imagine his brain mapped and 'ran' as a neural network in a computer. Nevertheless, you are still alive, and there are simply two creatures (is a human brain ran in a computer a human or a computer?) that, for a short period of time, thought exackly the same. Then, due to different stimulus and perhaps some imprecision in copying, your thought processes would slowly diverge, and the machine-you would think differently.
You cannot live forever inside a computer. You can copy yourself to a computer and then die, but that doesnt sound so cool anymore does it.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

FLoWCTRL (20442) | about 5 years ago | (#27495751)

You can copy yourself to a computer and then die, but that doesnt sound so cool anymore does it.

Actually, it's still pretty cool. :)

Re:The inevitable result... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495801)

I am not sure your argument holds. It really depends on whether the mind is in the software or the hardware. Say I replaced your neurons one at a time with synthetic neurons, would you cease to be you at the end of the procedure. We could ask you if you feel any different at any point during the procedure, just to be sure you still feel like yourself. This isn't very far off of what is already happening in your brain right now. You have very little of the original material in your brain (and the rest of your body) from when you were a child. In the future you will also have different material, making your current consciousness "dead".

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | about 5 years ago | (#27496671)

You lack imagination. Imagine a cyberspace aspect of yourself, permanently linked to the organic brain. The *mind* itself would be spread across both the organic and inorganic components. When the organic bits wore out, the consciousness might notice, cobble up another brain out of the leftover bits (using the same molecules if it was sentimental), and download the memories at deathtime (and since) back into the organic matrix and go on it's merry way. Reincarnation or Extreme medical treatment? Life after death? There's a lot of possibility there, particularly if a stored personality has essentially unlimited lifespan to wait for new inventions.

Re:The inevitable result... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27497013)

Think of it more as a transition rather than a copy and shutdown. If your consciousness can adapt to using both your biological brain and expand to a computer environment, why couldn't it eventually move completely to the computer? As a section of the brain is damaged, the brain can develop new pathways. Why can't these new pathways on the computer?

Mij

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

Locke2005 (849178) | about 5 years ago | (#27497599)

Yes, the machine copy and original would quickly diverge. Also, the machine copy would not be affected by changes in hormones, blood sugar, disease, etc. But then, the you that you are today is different from the you that you were yesterday too. And if the machine me gets an unlimited internet connection and no requirement to work for a living, I'm sure he would be quite happy to download porn all day... unlike the real me. Knowing me, we'd probably quickly grow to hate each other.

On the other hand, if that is the only way that I or at least a simulacrum of me can be there to observe my grandchildren's weddings, will then that is pretty cool, isn't it? Sort of depends on how much control the machine me is allowed to have over it's own environment. But yes, it is more like hiring a watchdog that thinks a lot like you do to watch over your family than it is like being there yourself.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

FLoWCTRL (20442) | about 5 years ago | (#27495501)

A neural network running a simulation of a human brain would be a Turing-complete strong AI.

Actually, it would need to be severely dumbed-down in order to pass the Turing Test. Electronic circuitry operates millions of times faster than the electro-chemical circuitry of the brain, plus it could have instant access to vast databases of information, and no human has that much and that accurate memory.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | about 5 years ago | (#27495707)

Agreed, GP is insane if he thinks this is useless. Replacement bodyparts early on we could replace eyes. Later on maybe we could extend the brain (add external storage). But this is useful in getting people to accept artificial limbs. We could build the matrix even if it is shitty at first. Understanding our brains is understanding ourselves. This never hurts! We could look at how information is routed and exploit it. We have some things like mnemonics. But with greater specifics we can get ourselves to think smarter (by that i mean do the act of thinking smarter, more efficiently). There are numerous applications for a map of the brain.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

Locke2005 (849178) | about 5 years ago | (#27496237)

I would expect the fine detail of the neural pathways to be created more by environment than by genetics. Also, it is time-variant, and not just run on electrical impulses of neurons -- there are lots of chemicals that also affect brain function. You need more than just a map to simulate a brain. Although this is a good step in that direction. Like functional MRI, this is mostly just a tool to facilitate further understanding.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

thepotoo (829391) | about 5 years ago | (#27496785)

That is quite correct (especially the bit about environmental regulation, so long as we're talking about vertebrate brains), however, neurotransmitters largely just regulate when and the extent of the action potential running down the axon. It should be possible to simulate everything needed with nothing but a detailed understanding of the systems biology of the neurons; IE a map.

I can't seem to find a cite for this in my bookmarks, but I know it's been peer-reviewed before.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

ShakaUVM (157947) | about 5 years ago | (#27497727)

>>A complete map of a brain of someone with and someone without gene XYZ will tell us about the role played by gene XYZ without the ethical or temporal problems...

Uh, no. Brains are plastic entities. A person who has gone to music school will have a much larger map for dealing with processing sound than a cultureless American. (Oh, wait, I'm a cultureless American.) In science, controls are essential for telling what changing variable X does, and unless you can control a person's behavior (thus raising the ethical and temporal problems you're trying to avoid), it will be hard to determine what gene XYZ does unless it's blatantly obvious.

>>A neural network running a simulation of a human brain would be a Turing-complete strong AI.

Uh, no. Or, well, maybe. Strong AI is probably impossible (as Searle has pretty convincingly argued). It would be a great tool, though, and very useful.

Thats not humane (1)

nten (709128) | about 5 years ago | (#27498551)

Just because the brain map now run on silicon doesn't mean it doesn't have rights. Treating it as a test subject instead of a person is a sure way to wake up skynet or the cylons or that thing from "I have no mouth and I must scream"

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | about 5 years ago | (#27499297)

No, no, no, no. That's so short sited. You have to think of Real Uses for mapping your brain. Things like, your wife's birthday, where you put your keys last, what your girl friend said about some useless piece of information that she feels deeply about. I don't know about World Peace, but peace in my home would be like Shangrala.

Re:The inevitable result... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495113)

Many people probably thought the same thing when we were mapping the human genome. We are still nowhere near understanding the entire thing and yet have used it to make many discoveries.

I imagine something similar will come out of this. It will be useful for research even when we don't really understand much about it, and as our understanding of the brain, neural nets, and other things improves, this map will only become more and more useful.

Re:The inevitable result... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495147)

Why would understanding consciousness be the greatest use?

If you have the whole brain mapped as a neural network, nothing easier then stimulating some of the nodes and watching what happenes.

Of course learning the interface with senses etc will be alot of work too, but if you actually have the whole brain as a black box, you've done over 90% already.
Then you start feeding it basic images and watch what happenes. Perhaps, if you have a brain of a adult mapped, you can talk to it -though interpreting muscle signals sent to generate sounds could be tricky.

There you go, creative thinking.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 5 years ago | (#27495865)

Your suggestion seems a tad ethically tricky. If you could actually accurately simulate a human brain, you'd pretty much be poking at a human.

If that doesn't bother you, hobos and poor kids are cheaper than supercomputer simulations...

Re:The inevitable result... (4, Interesting)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about 5 years ago | (#27495159)

This may be of use for diseases, but the greatest use - understanding consciousness - is still well beyond simply mapping the brain

A variation on the sentiment "Why bother investigating this, it's beyond our understanding and is useless," which has been posed at some point to every serious scientific inquiry. "Why study fungus, you can't do anything useful with it!" is probably something Flemming heard right before he discovered penicillin.

Fortunately it's often wrong. In this case, it seems to me that knowing the map of a brain could have some real tangible uses

-Understanding the sequence of wiring a brain, we know some things about the order in which brain cells develop, and we know unconnected neurons die, but beyond that I'm not sure we know anything. Is there an organization to how the brain initializes itself? Could this be one thing that goes wrong in, say, autism?

-Better understanding of the interconnectivity of different regions of the brain. Obvious uses there for dealing with lesions to the brain, if you learn from this study that one of the areas damaged is highly connected to a distant part of the brain, you might want to watch out for effects on that other part of the brain

-Helping us understand how or if new neurons generated in adulthood integrate into the already existing, quite complicated network

-altering something and seeing how that affects the brain map, to study the plasticity of the brain and possibly learn how to learn better

That's just the ones I could think up, there are undoubtedly more reasons one of the authors could fill you in on, and there are probably even more uses that even they haven't thought of, that some other researcher will.

Anyway, since when did science ever need to have a clear use in mind before we did something? If you're anything like the typical slashdotter, you don't bother asking "What good will that do" when discussions of "Let's land on the moon or mars" come up. I would argue that this is clearly more useful than that, but that doesn't matter, it's not about knowing all that we can gain from an endeavor in advance.

Re:The inevitable result... (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 5 years ago | (#27495339)

Nope.
Consciouness is just another part to figure out, and mapping the brain will start to pull it together to the point where we will be able to determine consciousness, not just understand it.

For example, most people related 'who they are' or knowing where the are in the universal as a critical part of consciousness.

Already we know which part of the brains tells you where you end and everything else begins. a critical piece to understanding consciousness.

We pretty much know where most the pieces the we think of consciousness comes from.

Just 30,000 genes -- how complicated can it be? (1)

nbauman (624611) | about 5 years ago | (#27496231)

It's easy. They'll just map the brain of developing embryos at every stage, and see how it all goes together. 2 cells, 4 cells, 8 cells -- how complicated can it get?

This isn't rocket science.

Connections (1)

symes (835608) | about 5 years ago | (#27494895)

So a while back I was chatting to a maths guy over coffee and we started wondering about the brain. He figured that the average number of synapses between any two purkinje [wikipedia.org] cells was just over three - now that would seem to be pretty interconnected, to the extent that cortical differentiation really isn't all that.

Re:Connections (1)

gardyloo (512791) | about 5 years ago | (#27495301)

That's interesting. Computer network models seem to say that with equal-weight connections, if you have, on average, fewer than two connections per node, the network quickly reaches a static state ("death"), whereas if there are more than an average of two connections per node, the network thrashes around in chaos. At 2 per node, "complex" behavior emerges.

      We know that many cells are massively more connected in the cerebrum (on the order of 10^4 connections per node), but obviously different connections are weighted differently.

In 500 mm (1)

DjMd (541962) | about 5 years ago | (#27494897)

In 500 mm turn right at the Hippocampus, and you have reached your destination.

Seriously, this is pretty cool. Genomics and protenomics are cool, but you have to map the brain to understand it...

Re:In 500 mm (1)

robkill (259732) | about 5 years ago | (#27495101)

In 500 mm turn right at the Hippocampus, and you have reached your destination.

I knew I should have taken that left turn at the pituitary. (said in a Bugs Bunny voice of course)

This is a great achievement... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27494943)

but I would be more interested in a system to map and digitize vagina tissue.

Re:This is a great achievement... (3, Funny)

MrEricSir (398214) | about 5 years ago | (#27495303)

Are you serious? There are plenty of samples of digitized vaginal tissue on the internet already. Many require credit cards, however.

Re:This is a great achievement... (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | about 5 years ago | (#27495837)

If we learn enough about the brain you could get a button that causes you to have an unending orgasm...

Re:This is a great achievement... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27497319)

that would be so cool

Re:This is a great achievement... (1)

LUH 3418 (1429407) | about 5 years ago | (#27497357)

"If we learn enough about the brain you could get a button that causes you to have an unending orgasm..."

Well, I've heard that has already been done on mice... The story went that researchers had managed to hook the "orgasm center" of a mouse to a button, and placed the said button next to another button that dispensed food. The mouse then repeatedly pressed the orgasm button until it starved and died.

Re:This is a great achievement... (1)

Locke2005 (849178) | about 5 years ago | (#27496301)

Not really that useful, since every one is different. Of course, the same could be said of brains, too.

At long last... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27494977)

We shall know where Mankirks' wife is.

sounds like (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27494997)

Sounds like internal phrenology to me.

Which brain? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495117)

The real question is with male subjects which brain are they mapping?

Frozen brains (1)

StikyPad (445176) | about 5 years ago | (#27495225)

It looks like this method, as others, divide the brain into slices for mapping. Doesn't the slicing of soft tissue make it difficult or impossible to determine the exact point of connection between slices? I imagine it like dividing a plate of spaghetti, and then trying to determine which noodles were connected to which just by looking at their new positions, whereas their previous positions were determined, in part, by the connections themselves, and the slicing process has introduced entropy.

Are the brains frozen into a solid before slicing? If not, how do you preserve the arrangement? If yes, have you had any problems with zombies trying to eat the braincicles?

Re:Frozen brains (2, Informative)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 5 years ago | (#27495361)

I suspect that information is lost during the slicing; but that there are really no better alternatives, so you take the tradeoff, even if you don't like it.

Optical microscopy, in combination with appropriately chosen staining techniques, offers good resolution and a large number of viewing choices(depending on what you stain for) at relatively low cost; but isn't all that useful for anything but thin slices or surfaces. Getting results equivalent to optical microscopy out of big solid lumps, by MRI or Xrays, or some other means, would likely be much trickier.

Re:Frozen brains (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495679)

More worrisome than entropy about the slicing process is the life of the patient! People could die!

and then what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495383)

Without RTFA, this seems silly to me. Great you can map the brain but what real science will be done? What predictions or deeper understandings will be acquired?
Seems like figuring out how a car runs by making a diagram of the engine without know what each part does.

Re:and then what? (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 5 years ago | (#27495775)

When the alternative is figuring out how a car runs by staring at the engine and scratching your head, making a diagram starts to look like a pretty good idea...

Re:and then what? (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about 5 years ago | (#27495887)

Without RTFA, this seems silly to me. Great you can map the brain but what real science will be done? What predictions or deeper understandings will be acquired?

Here's the quick answer to that question, special for all those who didn't RTFA or read the answers to identical questions asked above:

Various complicated but important things.

"Real" science? (1)

Valdrax (32670) | about 5 years ago | (#27497745)

Without RTFA, this seems silly to me. Great you can map the brain but what real science will be done? What predictions or deeper understandings will be acquired?
Seems like figuring out how a car runs by making a diagram of the engine without know what each part does.

"Real" science?

I think that astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, and a great many other students of the observational sciences -- including many field biologists and anatomists -- would take offense at that characterization.

Just the ability to observe intricately how the brain is put together first is valuable enough knowledge without tinkering with the thing blindly.

new tools enable faster mapping of the brain (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27495433)

A better title would be, "New computational tools allow scientists to map the brain at a faster rate than previously possible" - because scientists began mapping the brain decades ago.

From the article, it sounds like neurophysiology and the like are finally getting some decent tools with which to automate time consuming and predictable aspects of their work. This is along the lines of what google did for search.

Better tools make the impossible possible.

Re:new tools enable faster mapping of the brain (1)

Raindance (680694) | about 5 years ago | (#27496975)

Very true about the title.

And yeah, this announcement is a two-part release: first, a system/workflow which uses existing equipment (TEM, methods of metabolic analyses) but does so in a way that automates and streamlines mapping processes which were very time-consuming, and second, a map of the mammalian retina and related neural networks done with this system.

How complete is the map constructed by this workflow? Open question right now I would guess? I haven't dug into the parts of the paper that would answer this if it has a conclusive answer.

Also there's nothing limiting this workflow to brain tissue- that's just arguably the most immediately interesting application.

Wish you were posting from a named account.

Why invest so much in brain research? (2, Insightful)

benjfowler (239527) | about 5 years ago | (#27496003)

I went through school, being told by science teachers that science really knows squat about the brain and how it works.

Obviously, researchers can't resist a mystery and an intellectual challenge, and I can see why it would be fascinating to try and unravel the mysteries about how the brain works.

I have a question for the neuroscientists however... what's so critically important about this work, to demand the enormous resources being sunk into this?

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

Lord Ender (156273) | about 5 years ago | (#27496121)

I have a question for the neuroscientists however... what's so critically important about this work, to demand the enormous resources being sunk into this?

That's a puzzling question. What would you rather have the neuroscientists working on, if not neuroscience?

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

phantomfive (622387) | about 5 years ago | (#27496261)

Come on, now you're talking like a politician.

I have a question for the neuroscientists however... what's so critically important about this work, to demand the enormous resources being sunk into this?

You seriously can't think of anything useful that could come out of this? Possibilities for artificial intelligence, medicine, origin of life.........if you can't see that, you really ARE like a politician.

And exactly how much do you think is being spent on this, anyway? What kind of 'enormous resources?' The entire budget for the national science foundation is $6 billion. A much better allocation of resources than bailing out incompetent bankers, if you ask me.

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

benjfowler (239527) | about 5 years ago | (#27496387)

Well, maybe I should've phrased the question a little better... and I certainly wasn't trying to be cute or 'politica' as it were. I'm a big advocate of science spending in general.

What I *should've* asked, was:

"there are many equivalent and roughly as-challenging problem areas out there, and there seems to be a great deal of work being done on neuroscience and related fields, with breakthroughs announced on a daily basis. What's driving the interest, time and money being devoted into neuroscience, as opposed to, say, cancer immunology.... ?

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

Idiomatick (976696) | about 5 years ago | (#27497163)

HAHA cancer gets i'm sure thousands of times the budget this gets. Giving it another extra .01% of funding wont change shit. This also has more exciting implications than cancer immunity.

I'll give it a go... (3, Insightful)

rts008 (812749) | about 5 years ago | (#27498959)

It seems everyone is too busy being flippant or dismissive towards you, so I will attempt to give you an answer.

1. Neuroscience is considered important in the medical field. The nervous system is important for almost every other bodily function if for no other reason than it is the control and communication system of the body.

2. the brain is one of the least understood of our organs, and arguably, one of the more important ones. Anything we can learn about it helps a lot at this early stage.

3. Scientists/med researchers are people too, and since people have diverse interests and passions, so do the scientists. They gravitate to fields that hold an interest/importance to them. Freedom of choice, etc....there is no pool of researchers and scientists that are assigned fields of study by some group/organization.

4. Because it's there. This is a central drive inherent in humans...to 'boldly go where no man has gone before', and can be attributed to many reasons to do so.
Curiosity, exploration for the thrill or ego(I was first!!!!), need to contribute/help, revenge/righting a perceived wrong...

Yeah, this is all just basic stuff, but can be easily overlooked or taken for granted. On one side(funding) you have special interests, on the other you have researchers with special interests. They have a habit of finding each other.

It gets to be easy to sit back and wonder 'why this and not that' from the outside. Maybe this will help:
(I'm not asking for an answer, just giving food for thought, but it's okay to answer!)

What do you do for a living? What got you into that, and why is it important to you? If not important to you(other than to make a living), then what would you want/like to do? Apply those answers to your question, and you may have an answer.(not trying to be an ass, but it's not an 'easy/one answer' question.

On a more personal note, I'm all for neuroscience to blast forward. At my age, my mind is in the best shape of any of my other 'parts', and I would love to be able to go into a body shop and have my brain transferred(by some means) to a new body. :-)

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

Tetsujin (103070) | about 5 years ago | (#27496803)

I have a question for the neuroscientists however... what's so critically important about this work, to demand the enormous resources being sunk into this?

Well, I have a brain, as do most people I know - I'm going to go out on a limb and say there may be some long-term benefits for medicine.

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27496835)

how DARE they research a topic they have no idea about. When we were born we knew ALL about gravity and we didn't need to do any research on it! Computers? Childs play! Why, In my day cavemen were playing with them. We didn't need any tech support because that's how the lesser cavemen earned their pay...

until the dinosaurs stepped into play. Those jerks took all our money from outsourcing. "Oh, you can pay a dinosaur half the price" they said. WELL LOOK NOW!

The sad part is, I'm the one here who will be marked troll.

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

HTH NE1 (675604) | about 5 years ago | (#27496929)

I have a question for the neuroscientists however... what's so critically important about this work, to demand the enormous resources being sunk into this?

Because we're there.

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (1)

turing_m (1030530) | about 5 years ago | (#27498555)

I have a question for the neuroscientists however... what's so critically important about this work, to demand the enormous resources being sunk into this?

Hey, Skynet ain't gonna get built by itself.

Re:Why invest so much in brain research? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27498807)

Oh, I've got a MUCH better question than THAT! ;-)

Seems scientists are having one heck of a time just trying to figure out the entire nervous system of C. elegans (a worm), which consists of precisely 302 neurons...and about 7,000 synapses, and perhaps 5 neurotransmitters.

http://thalamus.wustl.edu/nonetlab/ResearchF/elegans.html [wustl.edu]

And you think they'll have the slightest clue about the 100,000,000,000 neurons of a human brain/nervous system!?!!

BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA...not a chance for several centuries yet...

Oh, and ah...I'm a science teacher...;-)

Yeah, I don't know... (1)

Tgeigs (1497313) | about 5 years ago | (#27496041)

Do people remember all of the full "usable" gene mappings and correlations that were going to come out of the human genome project? We had smart genes, violence genes, political genes, blah blah blah, even though most of the genes were filler/junk lines of "code", which basically just meant we didn't know WHAT the hell they did. There was even a span of time when bio-med and genetic engineering firms were scrambling to patent various genes and their effects. It all turned out to be mostly a big joke, and I can see the same thing happening with a brain map--a la, "We've found out the part of the brain that makes people stupid! Line up at our testing centers to find out if YOU are a dumbass!"

Re:Yeah, I don't know... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27496195)

genetics: it's not neuroscience, uh, I mean rocket science. Dorks.

Is it me, or is anyone else worried by the rationale for this post and the one right above it that basically posits the idea that 'I don't understand what can come of this therefore it's worthless'?

It's like people who think Folding@Home is worthless because it doesn't come up with cures itself.

An enlightening moment in this research... (1)

Tetsujin (103070) | about 5 years ago | (#27496755)

The scientists working on this problem suddenly realized they had found something! All were shocked at what their results were showing... Finally, one scientist, almost afraid to face the implications of this great discovery, broke the silence and spoke to his fellow researchers...

"This is... astounding... ...Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

To which one of his colleagues prompty replied:

"I think so, but where are we going to find a duck and a rubber hose at this late hour?"

Shitty z resolution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27496993)

The resolution along the cut axis is shitty. The 70 to 90 nm they cite in the paper is way too low to build comprehensive 3-dimensional reconstructions. They're basically looking at series of 2d pictures. And they're expecting that "crowd-sourcing" the data-analysis is going to produce high-quality reconstructions of _huge_ size. Computer vision algorithms are clearly the way to go here.

Autism (1)

xluap (652530) | about 5 years ago | (#27497189)

This brain mapping would be great if they mapped an autistic brain and compared it to a 'normal' brain.

I want to know if there is a difference in 'architecture' between autistic and normal brains.

Well, once the neurons are mapped (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about 5 years ago | (#27497225)

then the much bigger task of mapping the interconnections can begin. That should not be more than one or two orders of magnitude harder.

let's be clear about what's being done... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27497233)

Though transmission electron microscopy (TEM) remains the optimal tool for network mapping, the process of building large serial section TEM (ssTEM) image volumes is rendered difficult by the need to precisely mosaic distorted image tiles and register distorted mosaics. Moreover, most molecular neuronal class markers are poorly compatible with optimal TEM imaging. Our objective was to build a complete framework for ultrastructural circuitry mapping. This framework combines strong TEM-compliant small molecule profiling with automated image tile mosaicking, automated slice-to-slice image registration, and gigabyte-scale image browsing for volume annotation. Specifically we show how ultrathin molecular profiling datasets and their resultant classification maps can be embedded into ssTEM datasets and how scripted acquisition tools (SerialEM), mosaicking and registration (ir-tools), and large slice viewers (MosaicBuilder, Viking) can be used to manage terabyte-scale volumes. These methods enable large-scale connectivity analyses of new and legacy data.

It's basically a set of algorithms brought together and improved upon for interpreting data more quickly. This is a breakthrough in the sense that a CPU today is a "breakthrough" on a CPU ten years ago: old theory, various parts of which have been implemented on high end processors over the years, are now all on that little desktop-class die in front of you - so you can do the things you've already been able to do, but more quickly.

What we have here is a fine achievement, but it's really a feat of software integration - not a biological breakthrough.

Re:let's be clear about what's being done... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27497451)

You're still overstating the achievement. They've basically refined the process for mosaicking together and cataloguing static images, creating some scripts to integrate with a viewer. Their main achievement, then - and a damn important one - is highlighting the dearth of competent software engineers in neuroscience.

This framework combines strong TEM-compliant small molecule profiling with automated image tile mosaicking, automated slice-to-slice image registration, and gigabyte-scale image browsing for volume annotation. [...] Specifically we show how ultrathin molecular profiling datasets and their resultant classification maps can be embedded into ssTEM datasets and how scripted acquisition tools (SerialEM), mosaicking and registration (ir-tools), and large slice viewers (MosaicBuilder, Viking) can be used to manage terabyte-scale volumes.

Re:let's be clear about what's being done... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#27497735)

On second thoughts, having read through the article and found that they've pointlessly bred and killed lab animals for the experiments, I can see why there aren't more competent engineers in neuroscience. Why are some fields of biology so barbaric?

I've donated my body to medical research. If you require more freshly killed corpses than are available then ask people for them - either humans or animals entering the food chain. If you think your work is too important to prioritise ethical arrangements then you are no better than any other C20 technocrat who formed the elite that led his country into misery "with good intentions".

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