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The Search for Mental Illness and Addiction in the Brain, Part IV: The BRAIN Initiative and the Politics of Experience

06/03/2013 06:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013

In part one in this series, I described the Human Genome Project and its results. In part two, I reviewed how poorly genetics and neuroscience have done to date in addressing the human psyche. In part three, I interpreted the underlying script between DSM-5 objectors and defenders as a confrontation over what being human means and thus how best to categorize and treat mental illness. In this post, I discuss whether the BRAIN Initiative, which the White House describes as "a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind," stands any chance of succeeding at its aims.

In the first three parts of this series, I have reviewed the manifest failure of reductive genetic and neuroscientific models of the mind to address psychological functioning and to remedy psychopathology. However, not the least daunted by these failures -- described in the New York Times this way, "Decades of spending on neuroscience have taught scientists mostly what they do not know, undermining some of their most elemental assumption" -- neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and the public at large remain fantastically optimistic in their assumption that reductive biochemistry will solve our emotional and social problems. Genetics and neuroscience never have to say they're sorry -- not succeeding in curing addiction and mental illness, as a leading neuroscientist confidently predicted we were on the verge of doing in 1977, when in fact these conditions have worsened -- is no cause for concern or for backtracking. It's simply a matter of time. We may just have to move on and look in different places for this holy grail.

Or, another possibility is, this entire scientific enterprise is misbegotten and stands no chance of succeeding.

The "it's-just-a-matter-of-time" confidence is represented by the great new effort to resolve irremediable -- and worsening -- human problems via our brain circuitry, President Obama's BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. Of course, to evaluate its chance for success, we must ask, "What is BRAIN intended to accomplish?" There is a technical answer to this question, and an aspirational one, much as was true of the Human Genome Project to which BRAIN is regularly likened. Technically, just as the genome project measured the chemical sequences comprising three billion letters of genetic code arrayed along the genome, BRAIN is designed -- according to the president -- to measure "how almost a 100 billion neurons" make "trillions of connections" within our brain circuits.

But this is far from the limit of what experts hope -- nay, anticipate -- BRAIN will accomplish. And, in this regard, we are reminded once again of the Human Genome Project. The aspirational hopes for the genome project were that we would identify the function of all of that DNA, divided as we imagined it into genes. But it turned out this task was beyond the scope of the project, and we instead learned how incomprehensibly complex was the functioning of this DNA and the genome. For one thing, much of the genome didn't take the form of genes, leaving scientists to fathom the variable roles this unorganized DNA played in shaping the organism. And, yet, many people had much higher goals in mind for mapping the genome, including to identify genes for various mental illnesses and addiction. Such hopes have been re-evaluated, and an entirely different perspective on the role of genes now prevails, both more modest and more complex, as I described in part one.

In terms of formal, pragmatic goals for BRAIN, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, emphasizes the technical aspects of the project: "to understand how circuits made up of hundreds of thousands of neurons conduct the various activities that they can manage, such as in initiating voluntary motion, visual processing, the ability to lay down a memory and retrieve it." Or, as the president described BRAIN's goals, to give "scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action, and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember."

But the sub rosa stakes are much higher. Here Paul Allen (formerly of Microsoft, and now the Allen Institute of Brain Science) and Collins aim for bigger game: "The goal is to revolutionize how we study the brain, and to gain powerful insights into neurological diseases and mental-health disorders. It is past time to solve questions with profound implications for tens of millions who will benefit from treatments for depression, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, autism and many other disorders."

We can see that we are shooting at something of a moving target.

Developing a better understanding of, and effective treatments for, depression, autism, and other "mental-health disorders" (schizophrenia is also regularly mentioned by proponents of the project, including the president, below) is a very ambitious task for BRAIN. Although those actually involved in BRAIN stop short of saying the we can find the sources for these things and cure them, there is hope that this is where we are headed. Moreover, in the public's imagination, and in the minds of government and public health officials, hopes are much higher. At the press conference announcing the initiative, the president, apparently off-the-cuff, put a more grandiose slant on BRAIN: "None of this will be easy. If it was, we would already know everything there was about how the brain works, and presumably my life would be simpler here. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington. We could prescribe something."

Note the president's glib references to explaining behavior and correcting it with medications. The president was no doubt joking, even as his comments hit a major chord in America. Indeed, given the kind of concern being expressed over the massive diagnosis and medication of Americans, particularly children (nearly 1 in 5 boys will be diagnosed and treated for ADHD alone), is this funny? Is the president really processing all of the implications of the project?

One outspoken critic of the formulation of BRAIN is Partha Mitra, a physicist and philosopher of science and Crick-Clay Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who models the nervous system.

As a goal worthy of a multi-billion dollar brain project, we have now been offered a motto that is nearly as rousing as "climb every mountain": "record every action potential from every neuron." According to recent reporting in the New York Times, this goal, proclaimed in a paper published in 2012, will be the basis of a decade-long "Brain Activity Map" project. Not content with a goal as lofty as this in worms, flies and mice, the press reports imply (and the authors also speculate) that these technologies will be used for comprehensive spike recordings in the human brain, generating a "Brain Activity Map" that will provide the answers to Alzheimers and Schizophrenia and lead us out of the "impenetrable jungles of the brain" that hapless neuroscientists have wandered over the past century.

A brief note on philosophy of science: "emergent" properties are those that appear only at a more elevated levels of analysis. For instance, certain chemical and physical properties -- like surface tension -- can't be deduced by calculating the activity of the atomic and subatomic particles that comprise the object -- say an orange -- except, potentially, through a virtually infinite inventory of the activity of these particles. But the emergent properties of human psychology present a much, much more complex picture, and correspondingly thornier problems, ones that are often ignored by neuroscientists, and that are certainly not on the minds of the general public and politicians.

Thus, Mitra comments,

According to the paper, the reason we don't yet understand how the brain works is that brain function depends on so-called "emergent properties" and that these "emergent properties" can only be studied by recording all spikes from all neurons in the brain. "Emergent property" is a troublesome phrase and it is not exactly clear what it means, but the authors also point to correlated or collective behavior of neurons, and to phenomena from physics in which collective behavior plays a role. Further, the authors imply that this correlated or collective behavior cannot be deduced from other levels of observation (including the circuitry), hence the imperative need for the "measure every spike" project.

So far, scientists associated with BRAIN seemingly regard the solution to these emergent properties (like those involved in, say, schizophrenia) as merely a matter of measuring every single transmission of impulses through the nervous system. "What is wrong with this picture?" Mitra asks. "First, brains do not exist in isolation. Spikes are driven by two sources: the intrinsic dynamics of the neuronal network, and external stimuli." For Mitra, detecting every spike is both overkill -- somewhat akin to recording all the activity on the sun's surface (my analogy, not his) -- and, at the same time, grossly, fundamentally inadequate. There is no reason, and much trouble and expense, to go to such an effort, which will nonetheless fail to provide the answers being sought from BRAIN:

Even if one recorded all spikes from all neurons (and for the entire life span of the organism), to make any sense of the data one would have to simultaneously record all external stimuli, and all aspects of behavior. It gets worse: there will be individual variation among animals, and each animal will have a different environmental history. The "comprehensive" measurement exercise would extend ad infinitum.

But, with all due respect to Mitra, his description doesn't begin to tap the emergent nature of human mental illness, psychodynamics, and behavior, which encompass the impacts of setting, cognitive interpretation, cultural and personal meaning, momentary impulses, self-directed efforts at control and change, and social standards, pressure, and learning. Predicting outcomes -- which can be done with some degree of accuracy by testing and exploring people's consciousnesses, examining their histories and past response patterns, and knowing their social and cultural settings -- must always involve more than the recording of neural responses. Such predictions emerge from reconstructing the lived experience of humans.

By why focus on disagreements like Mitra's and mine with the reductive drift of BRAIN? Let's look to one remarkable source of enthusiastic support for the President's BRAIN Initiative -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor is completely aligned with the president in this one, single area on the American political scene. Speaking to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and as expressed in Tweets by his communications director, Cantor stated: "Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding, by reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research into expanded medical research, including the expedited mapping of the human brain. It's great science." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, "Damn psychology -- and certainly damn political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology; let's get right into the brain to figure human beings out." What do President Obama and Cantor share? A kind of type-A, non-reflective view of human nature. Additionally, Cantor and his colleagues have all along expressed the view that money spent on system remedies is wasted. Thus their unbridled enthusiasm for turning these issues into brain and medical matters.

So, let us reflect. As a result of BRAIN, will we, in a decade or so, or several decades, find and resolve the sources of schizophrenia, autism, depression, anxiety, as well as other human problems like war, crime, prejudice, and family discord, abuse, and dysfunction -- and, while we're at it, solve inner-city educational problems and the decline of the American education system?

We won't -- BRAIN can't, no more than could the genome project. Personality traits, human behavior, and psychopathology -- let alone political, cultural, and religious outcroppings and conflict, the latter of which entail yet additional layers of analysis and emergent realities -- don't exist in the form of biochemistry and neural impulses. In fact, my modest prediction -- based on trend lines since the late 1970s -- is that America's mental health, educational system failures, and fundamental social, political, and religious schisms (let alone worldwide conflicts) will worsen. But, if they don't, it won't be due to anything we discover in BRAIN.

If President Obama and Majority Leader Cantor are looking for a simple declaration of truth, they -- and the purveyors of BRAIN -- might start at this realization.

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