A global map of the mind: An electronic database may help to explain how the brain works, says Ruth McKernan

YOU MAY not have guessed it, but British and US scientists have designated the Nineties the 'decade of the brain'. They are expecting huge advances in the understanding of mental illness in the next few years.

American scientists are planning to produce a detailed reconstruction of the human brain to help. This will be a 'corporate' brain, stored on computer, acting as a central resource for researchers around the world to refer to.

According to Dr Stephen Koslow, director of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and co-ordinator of the project, the electronic brain will describe the geography and chemistry of the 100 billion cells that make up this complex organ. He says: 'Our ultimate goal is to have all the information known about the brain in a computer system which will be a three-dimensional representation of the human brain in both normal and diseased states.'

The project is the equivalent of making a detailed map of the world - a massive task, but indispensible once achieved. Since the number of cells in the brain is about 20 times the number of people on our planet, a complete analysis of the distribution and function of all the people in Britain would represent only a tiny fragment of the data.

The only other international biological project of comparable size is the 'human genome project'. This project is mapping every gene on the 23 pairs of human chromosomes.

In many organs of the body, such as the liver, most cells are identical. But in the brain, groups of cells have different chemical characteristics and specialised functions. Most of the brain's cells make direct contact with up to 100 others. Indirect links eventually join all the cells in one huge network. 'To really try and understand how the brain works we must put all this information together and consider the brain as a whole,' Dr Koslow told the annual meeting of the international Society for Neuroscience in California recently, when he unveiled the project.

The global scheme, called the Human Brain Project, should help clinicians to diagnose brain disease. More people are admitted to hospital in the Western world with mental illnesses than with cardiovascular disorders or cancer. By tapping into a global database of brain scans and case histories, doctors will be able to make more informed judgements on diagnosis and treatment.

The networks of cells in the brain form an intricate pattern of pathways and tracts. Just as computer studies of traffic flow in cities can help to pinpoint the source of traffic jams, a computer model of the brain may help to identify which pathways are involved in mental illnesses.

'The computer will be able to display neuronal circuits and could be used to define the pathways for anxiety or depression,' says Dr Koslow. The project should help scientists to predict the side-effects of new drugs.

It will also provide information on which part of the brain controls each of the body's functions. Such knowledge would make it easier for doctors to predict, for example, which abilities a patient might lose after having a brain tumour removed.

Unlike the genome scheme, the international brain project is primarily a job of assimilating known information, rather than generating new data. Some neurobiologists are wary that funding this type of 'big science' project may take money away from basic research.

Early work on the project is scheduled to begin next year, when 15 research institutes and agencies of the US government are expected to join with the NIMH - even the Central Intelligence Agency is interested.

Many other countries, including Britain, have been approached for financial support. The Medical Research Council, which allocates government funds, believes the scheme is potentially exciting, but has no plans to set aside money for it. Dr Peter Dukes, secretary of the neuroscience board of the MRC, says: 'We have an extra pounds 4.5m available from the Office of Science and Technology, some of which we could put towards this project, but we would need to see a well-justified demand from our scientists.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor