Video by: Ignacio Torres @igstorres
Dr. Rafael Yuste immigrated to New York City from Madrid, Spain, 26 years ago, with two suitcases, a medical degree, and not knowing a single person. Today, the neuroscientist is not only a professor at Columbia University, where he leads a laboratory, he was also one of the six researchers to help launch the new decade-long scientific effort to examine the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity — a project the Obama administration would like to announce in early March.
“The Human Genome Project cost $3 billion, and that was 15 years ago,” says Dr. Yuste. “This could be of that scale, or larger.”
He says the idea for the Brain Activity Map was born in a workshop in England in the Fall of 2011. It was a brainstorming meeting between neuroscientists who study the brain, and nano scientists and physicists who make small nano devices. Since 2011, he says there has been a series of workshops where the group has met with government officials and science administrators, and together, they crafted a proposal for the Obama administration.
“This very small group came up with the idea of building technology to map the activity of the brain,” says Dr. Yuste. “We thought we could build a new type of microscope that could actually visualize the activity of the brain – one neuron at a time.”
He says the first five years will be dedicated to mapping the activity of every neuron in small animals such as, worms, fruit flies, and mice. In 10 years, he says they hope to capture everything that goes on in the cerebral cortex, targeting up to a million neurons. Fifteen years from now, he says they hope to have technology developed enough to start reconstructing the activity of the human brain.
“We would also like to work, not only on techniques to measure the activity, but also to be able to manipulate the activity so that we can correct abnormal patterns that could happen in human patients,” says Dr. Yuste. “For instance, in epilepsy, you can imagine how an epileptic seizure is flowing through the cortex…If we can actually see that, and see how every single neuron participates, we may be able to go in and turn off or on specific neurons to stop the seizures…So this could be a new treatment for epilepsy…[as well as possibly] prevent a schizophrenic episode.”
According to Dr. Yuste, it is not set in stone yet how the Brain Activity Map will be organized, but one model is to have national centers where some groups of people will focus on solving a particular problem. For instance, building novel types of microscopes, or analyzing data that can come up, or building new ways of recording electrical activity of the brain on a massive scale. Goals and milestones have been set up.
Goal number one, he says, will be to take a look, for the first time, at the complete picture of neuron activity of the brain — an organ which he says is still one of the most ultimate challenges in modern science.
“Goal number two would be a clinical motivation,” says Dr. Yuste. “In a way, it’s like trying to fix a car that’s broken. You can’t fix the car unless you understand how it works…then we can tackle these [mental] diseases and cures for them.”
Thirdly, he says the Brain Activity plan is supposed to stimulate the economy, which President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address.
“In the Human Genome Project, for every dollar the government spent, the economy, over the years, got back $140,” says Dr. Yuste. “So it was a huge win for us all. We think the Brain Activity Map will spur similar industrial activity and commercial opportunities will appear…We hope this will be a very good investment for the country and lead to the creation of many jobs.”
And lastly, is the goal of education.
“Modern science is becoming more and more interdisciplinary…where scientists trained in different disciplines come together to solve a common problem,” says Dr. Yuste. “The Brain Activity Map will link together biologists, physical scientists, nano scientists, engineers, chemists…and in doing so, we will train a new generation of students…We think this is the type of scientist that the nation, and the world, is going to need in the future.”
At the end of the project, Dr. Yuste says there should be a greater understanding of the causes of depression, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and schizophrenia. Causes that are currently unknown.
“We don’t understand how [the brain] works,” says Dr. Yuste, who used to study schizophrenic patients when he was a doctor in Madrid. “It has 100 billion neurons, and it makes us what we are. Out of the activity of these neurons, comes our personality, our minds, everything that we are is a reflection of the activity of these neurons.”
He says he’s not only proud of completing his personal goal of initiating this crucial project, he’s also proud of being an American.
“For me, one of the best things in my life was to come here,” says Dr. Yuste about the opportunity he’s had to develop his career as an American citizen. “I think the Brain Activity Map has been the demonstration that the U.S. is a beautiful country, because an idea that came out of a brainstorming session, in a year, makes it all the way to the State of the Union address of the President…it goes all the way up to transform the country — in this case in science.”