Sunday, April 16, 2006

Whither to Neuroinformatics?

“We are alarmed that the NIH
has chosen to poorly support
neuroinformatics under
the NIH Roadmap and Neuroscience
Blueprint initiatives.”
—Gazzaniga et al, Jan 2006.

Is this a sign that neuroinformatics funding is in trouble? If so, what can be done about it?

Granted, the "Decade of the Brain" (1990-2000) was not exactly a stunning success. Just compare it alongside the Human Genome Project's online and offline success to see how far behind neuroscience fell. But this does not necessarily justify the cutback in funding. There are excellent initiatives that have recently emerged. What we need to do is redirect the funding to those initiatives that have a high probability for success, and that have already evinced success. Those initiatives do exist: For example, and, to name a couple.

Collaborative Digital Brain Mapping Comes of Age

Google Maps and related geomapping services provide high-resolution satellite maps to anyone with an internet connection and have set the standard for online digital mapping. We are now beginning to witness similar digital mapping technologies spilling over into other non-related fields, one of the more interesting of which is neuroscience and the collaborative digital mapping of the brain.

Launched less than a year ago, has rapidly developed to lead the field in digital brain mapping technologies. With several terabytes of ultra high-resolution brain image data, consisting of several dozen mouse, monkey, and human brains, its online brain image database is the largest and most diverse currently available. This massive image data is integrated with structural information regarding spatial locations of different brain areas and markers, and the relations between them. And in the collaborative spirit, online users are free to add their own labels and annotations, and to place landmarks throughout the digital brains they explore. Users may even share their images, landmarks, and other annotations with other users in the BrainMaps forum, which in many ways parallels the Google Maps Community, but on a smaller scale.

The U.S.-sponsored 'Decade of the Brain' has come and gone; it officially ended in the year 2000. It would take another five years before came onto the scene, and in a way, it encapulates what the Decade of the Brain should have been about: Collaborative digital brain mapping and a resource available to everyone with an internet connection.

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The Decade of Reverse Engineering the Brain (2005 - 2015)

We are witnessing a renaissance in brain science and technology. Science is examining the brain in ever increasing detail to discern important components of brain structure and function, all of it leading to a reverse engineering of the brain. Within the last year alone, websites have appeared devoted to mapping the brain in high detail. One of the most stunning of these is, where visitors may explore high resolution images of whole human and primate brains, seeing every neuron and every neuron process in vivid detail. We are now at a unique point in history where the brain is no longer viewed as a 'black box', but now, anyone with an internet connection can view every single detail of brain structure online. We are post-'Decade of the Brain' (1990-2000). We are entering the 'Decade of Reverse Engineering the Brain'.