Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute

Sara Peters, Editor in Chief | 1/23/2014 | 41 comments

Sara Peters
I'm worried about your brain. I'm worried about my brain. I'm worried about brains, period.

Being an epileptic, I probably think about the state of my brain more than most people do. And I was very excited yesterday to get the February 2014 edition of National Geographic, which has a cover story titled "Secrets of the Brain."

As the story explains, Harvard researchers have been working to create excruciatingly detailed 3D images of neurons, so they can see every little thing inside a brain -- specifically, right now, the brain of a dead mouse. So far, what they've managed to recreate is about the size of a grain of salt. That grain of salt contains 100 terabytes of data. There's the first problem.

The second problem, of course, is analyzing that data. To date, the Harvard researchers have analyzed a thousand cubic microns -- about 1/100,000 of that grain-of-salt-sized piece of mouse brain. The researchers say that, despite advancements in technology, they'll still another two years or so to finish analyzing that teeny brain sample.

How long would it take to scan and analyze an entire human brain? Jeff Lichtman, who leads the Harvard research team, told National Geographic writer Carl Zimmer that he doesn't dwell on that question, because it's "too painful."

Once again, we face a common problem in medical research. Even though there are brilliant researchers out there doing brilliant things -- the National Geographic story also tells of researchers who can actually make a brain invisible -- their work is severely hampered by limitations in computation.

The good news is that the BRAIN Initiative -- the government-funded undertaking to map the human brain -- has designated funds specifically for work on big data and computation. I hope that will further accelerate the already increasing speed of computing.

And perhaps computing will become not only faster, but also more intuitive, as Genevieve Bell of Intel predicts.

Wait. Hold on a second. Before we start asking our computers to do too much, let's look at another piece of new science.

As the New York Times reported this week, research led by Wayne State University School of Medicine has found insight into what inactivity does to the brain. The researchers took a dozen rats, gave half of them a running wheel (rats apparently love running) and gave the rest no wheel at all. After three months, the researchers found that the brains of the non-running rats had "changed in ways that made them likely to overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system, potentially increasing blood pressure and contributing to the development of heart disease."

As the Times writes, "The results underscore that inactivity can change the structure and functioning of the brain, just as activity does." So we need more powerful, more intuitive computers to study our brains, but if we sit around working at said computers, letting them do too much for us, we could damage our brains and our bodies. Try to wrap your brain around that one.

Of all the potential uses of big data, better neurological research is probably my favorite. What's your favorite big data project? Would you donate your brain to science, in the hopes that someone will make it invisible one day? Let us know in the comments below.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must hit the gym. My brain really needs a workout.

— Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief Circle me on Google+

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Sara Peters   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   2/28/2014 10:47:56 PM
Re: Beyond huge
@Susan  "A worldwide network of brains and processors devoted to solving some of the biggest neurscience research challenges of our time"  Hmmm... that sounds like something out of Doctor Who to me.

Susan Nunziata   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   2/26/2014 8:38:37 PM
Re: Beyond huge
@rich: I like that concept. A worldwide network of brains and processors devoted to solving some of the biggest neurscience research challenges of our time. Maybe the ONLy way to get the job done.
Susan Nunziata   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   2/26/2014 3:45:33 PM
Re: Beyond huge
@Rich: good points all around, and I definitely am not discounting the toxicity issue here. Also forms of infection (bacterial or fungal, for example). 

Unfortunately, my understanding of these issues is such that I'm better off reading something written by a marketing person b/c much of the medical literature is a tad too far above for my little brain. That said, I will do some more reading on this topic, as I find it extremely compelling.

Also looking forward to learning more about your research as it progresses.

Meanwhile, keep saying "No that's wrong" if it makes you happy. who am I to judge?



Susan Nunziata   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   2/10/2014 7:31:51 PM
Re: Beyond huge
@Rich: as with any research in progress, there's still much to learn. I don't know enough to delcare any of it to be right or wrong. 

Here's part of what I was basing my statement upon:

Two new studies by Broad Institute researchers are among the first to account for some of autism's heritability. Both studies, which were published January 23 in Neuron, investigate the role recessive genes play in ASD. These genes can be passed on through generations, but their effects are seen only if an individual inherits two identical copies of the gene – one from each parent.


In addition, the presentation I attended last fall included doctors from the MIND instutute at Stanford who talked about research into how genes that were markers for things completely unrelated to autism (such as thyroid disease and autoimmune diseases) were present in more often in parents of autiscit children. Again, I'm no expert in any of this, and I think any and all avenues are worth exploring, including of course environmental ones.

Susan Nunziata   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   1/31/2014 2:44:14 AM
Re: Beyond huge
@kstaron: I certainly hope that is the case.

Alongside neuroscience, my favorite use of big data is in mapping human genome and DNA in the hopes of uncovering cures for many diseases. The progress of work already done on autism, for example, has identified particular genes in the parents that may or may  not have a direct influence on a child's propensity to develop autism. It's still very early days, but to me the combination of neuroscience with understanding the rest of how our bodies operate is key.

The more we learn, the more we relaize we don't know about our own braind and bodies.
tekedge   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   1/30/2014 5:22:38 PM
Big Data and Your Brain
Mind boggling blog ! My brain needs some exercise even to wrap around this idea!
Sara Peters   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   1/30/2014 11:45:37 AM
Re: Big Data
@Rich   Hee-heeee. As far as I know, we don't have Bill Gates lined up for an E2 radio interview. I wonder if he likes organ music... maybe we could coax him in with that idea.
Sara Peters   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   1/30/2014 11:43:16 AM
Re: The real limitation
@Rich  Yup, makes sense. So I guess the question, then, is how do we get more people to become scientists? I know my 9-year-old nephew is rather keen on the idea -- although he's planning on going the "mad scientist" route -- but it seems to me that STEM programs these days are focusing more on engineering than on the other sciences.
Sara Peters   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   1/29/2014 1:00:32 PM
Re: Beyond huge
@kstaron   I wonder if it will happen in my lifetime too. I wonder if discoveries about how the brain works will help us learn how to get even more production out of our brains. If this research could ultimately help us get better brains -- brains of unprecedented levels of intelligence, creativity, what-have-you -- and those brains could be applied to the tasks of making even more new discoveries, then the work could have a truly exponential impact.
Sara Peters   Big Data & Your Brain: Why Neuroscience Cannot Compute   1/29/2014 12:53:59 PM
Re: Big Data
@Rich  Hahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. I'm saving this one: 

"they could just send my spirit the autopsy report after I shuffle off this mortal coil."

There's a 20% discount on reports for previous customers.

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