Obama Says “BAM” – The Brain Activity Map

Obama has consistently created history, and he did so once again. Brain Activity Map (BAM) is a project that aims to map each neuronal activity and connection in the human brain. The project ever since Obama compared it to the Human Genome Project at his State of union address is widely believed to have garnered funding by the US federal government. The ballpark figure that the Obama administration will allocate to this ambitious project is thought to cross over into a few billion dollars.

BAM was first proposed in September 2011 by the Kavli Foundation while they sought to bring together the worlds top talents in neuroscience and nano-science, in a project aimed at “recording from every neuron in the human brain at the same time” as it was put by the projects spearhead Yuste.

The human brain is thought to have a hundred billion neurons. Scientists and non-scientists have been forever intrigued with what makes humans humane, the answer obviously resides in the human brain. However the closest we have ever come to taking a look at the active human brain is through the techniques of EEG and fMRI, both of which have limitations. Neither of the technique allows a precise time locked understanding of individual neuronal activity neither do either of them come anywhere close to understanding how individual neurons speak to one another.

BAM hopes to not just understand the different kind of connections the different kind of neurons have in our brain but hopes to be able to decipher the neuronal messages and the neuronal language in order to understand how the human brain produces it’s thoughts and perceptions.

The human brain mapping project is an immense undertaking and requires a detailed road map. The road map to the eventual ambitious goal was laid out in a recent Neuron publication written by the scientists who initially proposed the project, Yuste and colleagues. The paper explains in detail the technological advances that would have to be made before the project can eventually map the neuronal individual and collective output. The team proposes a modest aim to first map the drosophila fly’s 135,000 or so neurons, and then to map the zebra fish and mouse. The next milestone would be the more ambitious mapping of a mammalian brain, the smallest being that of the etruscan shrew with one million neurons, and finally the human brain.

However many neuroscientists and psychologists have asked the crucial question on whether the sum of parts can ever equal the total when it come to an extremely complex puzzle as the human brain. Would mapping each neuron and its connection be enough to tell us what makes us humans? However, many are more worried about the eventual success of the project which not only seeks to map the brain but also seeks to learn how to control the human brain or to manipulate the neurons or to put it more bluntly, how to control the human mind.


Alivisatos AP, Chun M, Church GM, Greenspan RJ, Roukes ML, & Yuste R (2012). The brain activity map project and the challenge of functional connectomics. Neuron, 74 (6), 970-4 PMID: 22726828

Image via spirit of america / Shutterstock.

  • Titus McGuff

    This idea is by no means new or unique to Obama. The Human Connectome Project has been up and running for years now, and researchers have mapped connections in healthy individuals (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22305988) and in famous cases. For example, a group of researchers at the Laboratory of NeuroImaging were able to use healthy patient scans to determine what neural connections would have been removed in the traumatic accident of Phineas Gage (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0037454).

  • I think neuroscience gets oversimplified at all possible opportunities. To some extent, we still don’t know how a single neuron talks to another neuron in a network. We do have knowledge though, that at different conditions, the same two neurons, will communicate differently. So I don’t really think that after recording all neural activity together (if at all possible, even hypothetically), we can make sense of that data. A much better approach is to fund neuroscience the way it is now, but more judiciously and emphasize more on the basic science aspects of it. For example, to prioritize funding on a project that seeks to understand how the basal forebrain works (in a rat/mice) with specific hypotheses rather than to fund a project that wants to study Alzheimer’s patients with and without a drug in a fMRI experiment.

    • @Titus, yes, Obama has indeed not come up with the project himself 🙂
      @Kohitij, I think the initial (yet, not the biggest) challenge of the project will be to come up with imaging techniques that are way more powerful than the ones that we have now.And that entails coming up with ways to understand recordings from single neurons as well as neural interactions Yet,I do not agree with you that understanding about the rat/mice brain would further our understanding about the human brain without specific research addressing the human brain.

      • @ Rubeena:I agree that information derived from research on lower organisms doesn’t translate verbatim into humans. But if you look at the history of neuroscience, you will notice that most of the significant and reliable pieces of information about human brain (and even treatments of neurological disorders) have their roots and/or future in basic animal research. When you say, ” to come up with imaging techniques that are way more powerful than the ones that we have now” I think you are essentially talking about time frames that are in the order of 20 -30 years (minimum). I say this because if you take fMRI for example and ask ‘How much did we learn about human brains from fMRI (which has been around for quite a while now) and how much significant improvement there has been in the technique itself, (despite fairly large amounts of funding) the answers will be pretty depressing. Having said this, I don’t think only focusing on animal research will get us too far either. There has to be a steady transfer of efforts. But there is still so much to be learned from simpler systems that to identify human brain activity maps as a potentially fruitful (and highly funded) project in 2013 sounds a bit premature. But regardless, it is a worthwhile thought to cultivate. Yours is a good article by the way!

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Rubeena Shamsudheen, MS, MA, PhD (c)

Rubeena Shamsudheen, MS, MA, is currently enrolled in a PhD program at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. She holds a Masters in Applied Psychology from University of Kerala, India and a Masters in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre, Delhi, India.

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