Meet A Neurobiologist Who's Mapping The Human Brain

Cori Bargmann, co-chair of the BRAIN Initiative, envisions where the project is heading

Cori Bargman, Rockefeller University neurobiologist
Marius Bugge

Arguably more ambitious than the Human Genome Project or the Apollo program, the Brain Research Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative endeavors to demystify our least understood organ—and the one that makes us most human. Announced by President Obama in 2013, the 12-year, $4.5-billion undertaking aims to establish links between brain function and behavior, and to develop tools that will help us finally get to the bottom of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, autism, and depression. As the project’s planning co-chair, Rockefeller University neurobiologist Cori Bargmann spent the past year assembling expert teams and vetting research ideas. Now, she says, the real work begins. In her own words:

I don’t expect science to be at the very top of the political agenda. But a whole lot of scientists—and the president himself—said this is the time to figure out the brain. We began by organizing workshops with thousands of researchers in different fields, asking questions about brain chemistry, imaging, and tools: What do we have? What’s on the horizon? What do we really need?

In the past century of neuroscience, there’s been a lot of analysis of individual neurons and synapses, and, more recently, imaging of the whole brain. But we scientists think everything of substance happens in between these two scales. It’s as if you’re studying New York City with a microscope and satellite images. But what you really want is to look at it on a human scale.

"The brain is the most complicated object in the universe. What could be cooler than understanding that?"

To study that intermediate level, our microscopy and optogenetics technology—despite how far it’s come—still needs to be 100 times better. So the initiative is bringing together experimentalists and theorists from different disciplines, well beyond neuroscience. DARPA, for example, is interested in developing hardware to treat soldiers’ PTSD. Our goal is to build up the science and the tools so that everyone can use them.

Within a couple of years, the BRAIN Initiative could enable us to answer at least basic questions, like how many different kinds of cells are in the brain. We want to see the interconnected nerves that give rise to thoughts, actions, and emotions. And we are taking lessons from the brain to make computers more like networks of neurons, which don’t draw much power at all. Will we understand the basis of consciousness or creativity? No, I think not. You can’t plant a flag in it that way. But maybe we’ll discover them by accident. This is science, not engineering. In engineering, you know exactly where you’re headed. In science, you don’t know where you’re going until you get there.

—As told to Breanna Draxler

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Popular Science.