Paul Allen gave us the Experience Music Project (a truly pomo building shaped like, if anything, a smashed guitar), the Allen Telescope Array that searches into deep space for extra terrestrial life, SpaceShipOne, and now the Allen Brain Institute which is trying to do the brain version of the Human Genome Project.
Jonah Lehrer writes in April’s WIRED that some unexpected and disheartening “data sets have already demonstrated that the flesh in our head is far more complicated than anyone previously imagined. The brain might look homogenous to the naked eye, but it’s actually filled with an array of cell types, each of which expresses a distinct set of genes depending on its precise location. … But the atlas has revealed a startling genetic diversity; different slabs of cortex are defined by entirely different sets of genes. The supercomputer analogy needs to be permanently retired.” It turns out the brain is far more complex than imagined,and that every new level reveals a new level with discrete regions, and of course those regions open up to more. “This is the bleak part of working at the Allen Institute: What you mostly discover is that the mind remains an immense mystery. We don’t even know what we don’t know.” Such are the difficulties of a brain cartographer.
And to add discouragement, just when you think you are getting somewhere, you remember that “the brain, after all, is a byproduct of evolution, an accumulation of genetic accidents. The data that looks so arbitrary might actually be arbitrary. If that’s the case, having a precise atlas of the rain won’t lead to a unified theory–because such a thing can’t exist.” But if the brain is really the product of arbitrary genetic accidents, then these thoughts about the brain are nothing but more of the same, and what sense does it make to trust them? It’s amazing to watch people pull the rug out from under themselves and still think they have some cushy to sit on and grey matter to trust.
Regardless, the $100 million is not going to waste. The apparent uniqueness of individual brains is especially fascinating. It seems every brain has “a landscape of cells that has never existed beofre and never will again. … This variation is even visible at a gross anatomical level–different people have differntly shaped cortices, with differnet boundaries between anatomical regions. (This is why, for isntance, neurosurgeons hav eot painstakignly probethe cortex during surgery.) If the human atlas is like Google Maps, then every mind is its own city.”