A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why the Brain Mapping project is a Stupid Idea



It was just announced that President Obama wants to start spending one hundred million dollars to "map the brain", and that his oft-times rival Eric Cantor thinks it’s a great idea. But it is a terrible idea, because I can tell you, right now, about half of the big lessons they will learn. For a million more, I could probably gather a group of experts together to tell you about half of what remains. I'm not sure what, exactly, would be left after that, but I'm sure it would be comparatively cheap to figure it out. 

The Human Genome Project

Why am I so confident that I know how this story will end? Because the results have been obvious for at least half a century now, and because it will be basically the same story we have had with the Human Genome Project. Yeah, that's right! Despite what the politicians are implying, I assert that any comparison between the current initiative and Human Genome Project suggests that mapping the brain is a terrible idea. 

Now, I won't deny that the Genome Project (With its more than $3,000,000,000 price tag!) did create some cool technology, but it ultimately did not do what people thought it would do.
  • For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think we would end up with a list of 100,000 odd human genes. It turns out that there are probably around 20,000, around 1/5th of what was originally expected. 
  • For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think that most of the genes would help determine a single, clearly identifiable trait. It turns out that most genes influence many, many traits.
  • For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think that if we sequenced a few people's genes, we'd get a handle on variation. It turns out that the further we get from the initial project, the more obvious it is that there is way more variation in the broader human genome than we thought.
Wow! So basically they found out what the epigeneticits could have told them in the 1960's, and quite possibly even in the 1930's: There are fewer genes than you think. Each one influences many things, and its influence interacts dynamically with the environment. And getting a full picture of the variety of human genes will require testing a huge number of people. 

With those messages in mind, we can see that the human genome project told us a lot less than we were promised, and that the main scientific lessons we learned should have already been well known. I'm glad we spent three billion dollars to confirm that. 

The Brain Mapping Project

This new project is being touted as the neuro-equivalent of the human genome project. Once again we will be given the same obviously-absurd-from-the-start expectations. We will be told that there are an incredible number of brain regions to be discovered, that each brain area will serves a single function, and that the brain areas will be exactly the same between different people.

Alas, we already know these things to be wrong. There will not be as many distinct functional areas of the brain as we will be led to believe. What areas there are will not serve functions as distinct as we will be led to believe. There will be significant differences in the distinct areas that different people have, and the exact location of those areas between people. Finally, we will be told that really getting a handle on the full range of variation in human brains would take the study of many, many more people than they anticipated.

With that in mind, we can either save $100,000,000, or get a boat load of non-neural social science research done. You see, few will mention one of the dirty little secrets of science funding: Brain scanning is, by a big chunk, the most expensive way to gain insight into the human psyche. You could probably do 20 to 30 times as much good behavioral work for the same amount of money, maybe more.

But won’t there be other deep insights?

Sure, there will be some other insights. But will it justify the cost? I will readily admit that there is a lot about brain science I do not know. However, for probably one or two million, you could bring the right group of experts together over a 5 year period to figure out what most of the rest of this project will find. Instead of giving them $100,000,000, ask them what that amount of money is likely to find, and why. I'm pretty sure they could tell you most of it.

Will there be some things they don't know? Of course. Science is based on there always being unknowns. But if you had the list of things they already knew in hand, you could then design a much smaller budget to try to explore those new areas.

So, there it is! An enormous brain-mapping initiative is a bad idea. There are good ways to study the brain, but this is not it. 


P.S. The next post in my blog is about "What we know for sure about the brain". If you are interested in seeing a more forward looking notion of how to study the brain, please see that. 


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Cross posted on my Psychology Today blog at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fixing-psychology/201304/why-brain-mapping-is-stupid-idea

10 comments:

  1. You forgot "mapping the brain to explain behaviour will fail because the brain and behaviour are not the same thing" :)

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  2. Well... yeah... but that is already the topic of so many posts here! ;- )

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  3. I understand that this is your opinion, and you have a right to say what you're saying. Frankly, however, this article is misguided - to say the least.

    I'll try to be as concise and thorough as possible, and address the three points you brought up towards the beginning of this post.

    "For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think we would end up with a list of 100,000 odd human genes. It turns out that there are probably around 20,000, around 1/5th of what was originally expected. "
    - There is logical reasoning when assuming a large number of genes to be in the human genome. We're the most complex organisms in existence. If a worm has a total of 13,000 genes, then why wouldn't an organism of our magnitude of complexity have exponentially more genes? It turns out, from the little research I just did now, humans seem to have total 40,000 genes, and half of them encode proteins. The rest have not been dismissed as nonfunctional DNA. Rather, we're finding that these "junk" genes actually play a key role in processing and regulating the genes that are transcribed. Here's the current research initiative on those "junk" genes: http://www.nature.com/encode/#/threads

    -"For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think that most of the genes would help determine a single, clearly identifiable trait. It turns out that most genes influence many, many traits."
    - This is stupid. We know different genes encode for different traits. There is no single trait, as opposed to maybe our total consciousness and sense of self, that our genes will amount to. Each gene encodes a protein, and here's a diagram for the sake of me typing less: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6b/Human_genome_by_functions.svg

    - "For some crazy reason, everyone seemed to think that if we sequenced a few people's genes, we'd get a handle on variation. It turns out that the further we get from the initial project, the more obvious it is that there is way more variation in the broader human genome than we thought."
    - Your definition of "getting a handle on variation" is skewed. Understanding the genome allows us to understand the connections associated with different signaling cascades, and pathways that are vital for healthy cell life. If we can understand each component, which is a daunting and long task, we can further our understanding of diseases. By understanding the disease we can treat the disease, and have medication that has less and less side effects."

    You're a social psychologist. You presumably look at fMRI scans of the brain during specific tasks/tests. Did you know that the results of some of these studies from your field are horribly misinterpreted? http://pdc.stanford.edu/newlm/images/4/47/VulEtAl.pdf

    It's the process of mapping the brain, understanding the brain, and soon being able to manipulate the underlying components that allows us to learn to treat disease and advance ourselves as a species.

    You want to talk money? It's expensive. Everything we do here on the biology side of things is expensive. But everything we find out leads to advancements that benefit everyone else.

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  4. Anonymous said "We're the most complex organisms in existence", and (though I should be ashamed to descend to this) I stopped reading right there.

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  5. Short attention span Lee? Sounds like you need to see a psychologist. Just out of curiosity what is the most complex organism in your opinion?

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  6. Person still posting as Anonymous...

    I don't know what Lee's vote would be, but there are plenty of organism's in the running. Here is a pretty good bet: http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/enviro/EnviroRepublish_828525.htm

    Also, certainly if you consider eusocial insects as super-organisms then there are several contenders amongst the hymenoptera.

    By the way, I wouldn't get in an argument with a professional mathematician unless you are really ready to start defining your terms. Why, out of curiosity, do you think humans are particularly complex so far as organisms go? We have a pretty basic mammalian body plan, fairly simple sensory systems, digestive systems, etc. The only thing we really have going in terms of fanciness is a high brain-to-body-size ratio.

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  7. I am not the original anonymous poster. Sorry for the confusion, just don't want to use my email.

    Well I can argue with the professional mathematician if I want. I didn't propose an argument with him I just wanted his opinion on what organism he feels is more complex than a human.

    Saying one animal is more complex than another is pretty opinion based. I could say that those simple physiological processes that a human possesses that you dismissed are deceptively complex. Are you a professional physiologist? Maybe you shouldn't argue with one.

    However, no one has replied to the original anonymous poster's comment. Why not? You made the original argument. You must feel strongly about your opinion to have it published in psych today. Why not defend it?

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  8. I am going to have to agree with the anemone. There is good reason to believe that humans are the most complex, based on behavior which is a product of the capacity of our brain/mind. Now, you can claim that the capacity of the human brain to have mental properties (however we wish to put that) is some singular property, such that it is a simplicity and not a complexity, but that seems a little ridiculous. The capacity of the human brain/mind to create different environments that it desires for its self (roads, bridges, endless books, rocketships, space stations, Youtube, robotic hands) and to adjust endless brain/mind processes and thoughts to its advantage leads me to claim that human beings are the most complex, and perhaps increasingly so as we meld with our enviromnent. But we can of course quibble over what we mean by complex.

    My dog may respond differently than the neighbor's dog to the open newspaper on the floor, but the vast amount of possible and thinkable and probable human responses to that same newspaper gives us reason to believe that human complexity is going outstrip the complexity of most other terrestial creatures, and that this is tied to the complexity of the human organism, where such complexity resides mostly in the brain.


    Lyndon

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  9. As is often the case, my reply became big enough to become its own post.

    See here... http://fixingpsychology.blogspot.com/2013/04/what-do-we-know-for-sure-about-brain.html
    ...and please ask more!

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  10. Thank you for stating the "obvious" in your great article.
    Congratulations.

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