BAM! Goes ‘BRAIN’ – Updates on the US Brain Mapping Project


Snippet of the Whitehouse Brain Initiative infographic. Click to see in full.

I’m a bit miffed that it’s been only a couple of days and my last post, Perspectives on the NEW Decade of the Brain is already out of date. But really it’s only due to a name change.

Today, “Brain” or Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies was officially announced along with a shiny new infographic website in the place of the previous BAM working title (Brain Activity Map). BAM was pretty catchy, whereas now I think it sounds like they first came up with the idea of calling it the acronym ‘brain’, then inserted appropriate sounding words.

In his speech on the initiative, President Obama speaks generally about the importance of investment in science, naming, you guessed it, the $141 return for every dollar invested in the Human Genome Project. He begins talking about the Brain Initiative about 6 minutes in.

Obama talks big about America’s dynamism of doing things before everyone else. We will just have to wait and see what comes from this and the European lead Human Brain Project.

Ideas are what power our economy…that’s what America’s been all about….people who see what nobody else sees, sooner than anybody else sees it. We do innovation better than anybody else.

The President also mentions some of the heavily researched disorders: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, even ‘reversing’ traumatic brain injury and PTSD for “our veterans who are coming home” (nicely done).

$100 million of funding for the fiscal year of 2014 will be spread across 3 organisations: $40 million from the National Institutes of Health, $50 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), and $20 million from the National Science Foundation, as well as working with researchers in the private sector.

Despite the official press release, there’s no additional information to be found on plans for how the project will be carried out. All we know is that a plan will be made:

NIH is establishing a high level working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) to help shape this new initiative. This working group, co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann (The Rockefeller University) and Dr. William Newsome (Stanford University), is being asked to articulate the scientific goals of the BRAIN initiative and develop a multi-year scientific plan for achieving these goals, including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates.

So while the initiative is still ironing out the details of their goals, at least there’s some established funding to get it going. But the HBP can’t  let today be all about the US Brain Initiative…here they are on twitter showing ‘innovative’ America what’s what:


Perspectives on the NEW Decade of the Brain

Brain Activity Map vs. Human Brain Project. America vs. Europe.

The Cortical Crusades. (Image from The New Yorker)

I, like the neuroscience community, can’t wait to see what will come from the race to gaining ‘complete comprehension’ of the brain’s neural workings. So I’ve compiled several sources and opinions on the proposed projects to try to understand what research will take place, and where we think it’ll lead.

The race began last month when Obama announced a decade long brain mapping scheme which certainly appears to be challenging the recently launched European lead Human Brain Project (HBP) to a neuroscience duel; the American Brain Activity Map see the HBP’s €1 billion investment, and raises its to $3 billion. The goals of these initiatives are to “examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity” [1] and “to reverse-engineer the human brain in computers” [2], respectively, and both in the space of a decade.

This injection of capital in neuroscientific research sounds familiar. In the ’90s a ‘Decade of the Brain’ was declared by George Bush, with an aim “to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research” [3]. What can we expect this time around?  Continue reading


If Gloves Could Talk

Over 40 million people use sign language instead of speech due to hearing and speech impairments. Imagine if these people could communicate with non-signers using magic talking gloves…

Enable Talk is aiming to achieve just this. Sensor covered gloves send signals to a smart phone and hey presto, your hands are talking! The student project is still a work in progress for the Ukrainian team behind it, QuadSquad, who have tested various prototypes on sign language users in the Ukraine.

Enable Talk gloves translate sign language into speech using only a smart phone app.

Continue reading

Personality Change in China’s Single Children

Evidence from a new study published in Science suggests that the One Child Policy in China is negatively affecting the personality of new generations. It claims that single children born under the policy are less trustworthy and trusting of others, more risk-aversive and pessimistic, less competitive and less conscientious.

The OCP (One Child Policy), introduced in 1979, is one of the stricter initiatives used to restrict population growth. Breaking of the law has even lead to sterilisation and forced abortion, but the policy has been praised by the Chinese government for bringing countless families out of poverty [2]. In countryside villages parents are not limited in the number of children they choose to have as the policy only affects China’s cities. Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which a city-living couple may have more than one child, such as in the case of a severely disabled first child or families of ethnic minorities.

Professors at Monash University, the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne aimed to look into the impact of the OCP on personal characteristics of the new Chinese generations, such as altruism, trust, trust-worthiness, risk attitudes and competitiveness. Prof. Lisa Cameron and colleagues compared the data of 421 participants from Beijing in two cohorts: one of individuals born in 1975 or 1978, just before the one child policy was introduced, and the other of individuals born in 1980 or 1983, just after the policy.  Continue reading

‘Alternative Reality’ Villages for Dementia Sufferers

Is it right to deceive people with dementia about their reality?

Weesp, Netherlands near Amsterdam is the location of the pioneering dementia village Hogewey, a new alternative to the standard nursing home. Established in 2009, 152 people with severe to extreme dementia are the inhabitants of the private village, which boasts a café, restaurant, theatre, mini-market and beauty salon. The 25 clubs allow residents to keep busy day-to-day, with activities such as painting, cycling, and baking as well more domestic tasks like gardening, shopping and laundry. Hogewey information officer, Isabel Van Zuthem points out that these small jobs are those that can make a person feel “they still have a life” [1].

There are no nurses in the village, so to ensure the safety and well-being of residents, specially trained health workers take the roles of neighbours, shop workers, assistants etc. Continue reading

Christmas Shopping Can Promote Happiness

‘Tis always the season for psychology studies! I found out about this one on a post on Christmas psychology studies by Psyblog. Published in Science back in 2008, this research claims that spending money on other people promotes more happiness that spending money on oneself. Is it really possible to buy ourselves some happiness by giving other people presents?

There is vast research on the effect of money on happiness, and whilst the positive impact of a higher income on happiness is consistently found, the effect is surprisingly weak. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada claim that a person’s happiness is increased by pro-social behaviour, for instance spending time with friends, or donating to charity; essentially acts from which other people can benefit. It seems this is the sort of behaviour that can decrease with high disposable income.

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Aphasia – When Language Goes Wrong

a·pha·sia ˈfāZHə/

Loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage.

I thought I’d explain in this post why it is that I’m fascinated with the phenomenon that is aphasia. The main reason it’s so interesting is that it can manifest itself in very different ways. Aphasia is a result of brain injury, most commonly strokes, head trauma or neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s. So the effects observed in language depend on which part of the brain’s language areas were damaged; yet, not even this is necessarily consistent or predictable. Some of the stranger and more surprising effects can be seen in bilingual patients who can regain the use of one language but not the other, inadvertently switch language or communicate using a mixture of the two languages. Continue reading