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Several San Diego neuroscientists hope to be a part of an ambitious new effort, called the Brain Activity Map Project (BAMP), announced recently by officials at the White House, to map every neuron in the brain. Researchers say that doing so may lead to cures for several major neurological disorders.

Ralph Greenspan, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UCSD, was one of the six scientists around the country who helped initiate the project, which has been in the works since the end of 2011.

“We won’t have any privileged access to funding from the Obama initiative,” Greenspan said. “We’ll have to apply like everyone else. But UCSD is one of the great neuroscience hubs in the country, and I personally helped promote the idea. I can’t be sure that the Kavli Institute’s proposals will get funding, but I would say I am pretty confident.”

Greenspan said the primary goal of the project is to create a bank of information about the properties of every neuron in the brain, just as the Human Genome Project created a database of information about every nucleotide in the genome. Greenspan believes that “sequencing” the brain in this way will help bridge the gap between big-picture and high-resolution imaging of brain activity, which could lead to breakthroughs in treating neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease. He said that he and his colleagues believe that BAMP may even lead to a working replica of the mind someday.

“And beyond that, the ideas get a little wilder,” he said. “Even I don’t understand them completely, but that’s exactly the way it was with the Human Genome Project. When it was first initiated, who could have guessed all the places it would take us?”

Greenspan said that most of these so-called wild ideas come from the nanoscientists who helped develop BAMP. They’ve proposed everything from “neuronal quantum dots” — particles that will broadcast incredibly detailed information about brain signals in real time — to incredibly fine carbon fibers that can be embedded, like telephone cables, to pick up the activity of individual cells. But no matter how far-fetched the proposals were, the White House was always enthusiastic.

“[BAMP] was apparently an idea whose time had come, because it was very quickly embraced by everyone in Washington,” Greenspan said. “Within a year, we knew that there was a distinct possibility of this becoming a reality.”

Greensoan said that he believes that UCSD neuroscientists are particularly well-positioned to win grants in this area.

But other San Diego researchers, like Garrison Cottrell, are more guarded in their optimism. Cottrell is a professor of computer science and engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering and has done groundbreaking work modeling neural networks at Calit2.

“I’m very excited about the announcement,” Cottrell said. “But whether I’ll benefit from it, I’m less sure — though I certainly hope so. In my mind, you can map all the activity you’d like, but you have to understand what the activity is doing for your results to have any value. That’s where I think computer modeling, which is what I do, will have to come in.”

Cottrell is on a mission to crack the “neural code,” the seemingly arbitrary pattern of electrical currents that sweep across the brain every second. He said that if there’s one thing that trying to decipher this pattern has taught him, it’s that sequencing the activity of every neuron in the brain won’t be enough.

“If you build a brain that’s as complicated as the real brain, there’s no practical application to that,” Cottrell said. “Without the ability to model that data, we’d be just as confused as we were before.”

Cottrell said that additional funding through BAMP would allow him to buy faster computers, better modeling software and better hardware for his experiments, like a pair of eye-tracking glasses that could help his team build a model of where people look over the course of a day.

“And that’s just the start,” Cottrell said. “I could go on and on about what could be done with additional funding. But the biggest thing, I think, would be the ability to hire more students. We could get so many more young minds involved in science, through a project as big — and as exciting — as this.”

via Uncharted Neurons.