The intention of the Brain Activity Map project is to study the human brain, but there is also a lot of work going on in animal models, as they allow opportunities for testing devices before they are deemed safe for human trials. Worms, flies and leeches are good invertebrate candidates, and zebra fish, mice and rats provide another level of depth.
"Within 5 years, it should be possible to monitor and/or to control tens of thousands of neurons, and by year 10 that number will increase at least 10-fold," Donoghue and colleagues wrote in the Science article. "By year 15, observing 1 million neurons with markedly reduced invasiveness should be possible."
Donoghue anticipates that there will be insights that come out of the Brain Activity Map project that go beyond the human brain. After all, as a result of the space program, we have GPS. We have the Web because a primitive version of it was developed at the European Organization for Nuclear Research so that particle physicists could communicate better.
In the case of this project, next-generation sensors that work in the brain could also be used to make cars smarter, Donoghue said. For instance, a car could automatically slow down if a soccer ball is detected in the road, anticipating that a child may dart out next.
About that money...
Researchers compare the economic benefits of brain mapping to the Human Genome Project, which generated $800 billion in economic impact as a result of a $3.8 billion investment, according to the Science Express article.
The genome project, for which Church was a key leader, was another one of the "best ideas" Obama mentioned in his State of the Union. The Human Genome Project started out in 1990 with $30 million in funding a year, and was ramped up to $300 million a year, Church said.
But Church and his colleagues involved in the brain project have a vision that is akin to what happened after that project ended in 2003. Between 2004 and 2011, Church said, there was a "million-fold" reduction in the cost of genome sequencing, and it's still happening.
"Every person who does molecular biology now is a million times more effective because of the cost drop that came after the genome project was over," he said.
Cost reduction of brain mapping is also a big aim of the Brain Activity Map project. As technology gets better, it will also get cheaper, Church said.
"Rather than have some monolithic juggernaut goal, where we're compulsively going to get this neuron and this neuron and this neuron, I think it's more, we want to enable all the creativity, and maybe even jostle the creativity a little bit, because people can dream different dreams," he said.