"For the time being, Mr. Gretzky is still using his brain."

2 minute read

Benedict Carey describes the live online dissection of the brain of Henry Molaison (“Building a Search Engine of the Brain, Slice by Slice”). There’s a lot of description about just how to slice up a frozen brain suspended in gelatin, and what kind of country ham the resulting slivers resemble.

But much more interesting is what they plan to do with the scans:

An entire brain produces some 2,500 slices, and the amount of information in each one, once microscopic detail is added, will fill about a terabyte of computer storage. Computers at U.C.S.D. are now fitting all those pieces together for Mr. Molaisons brain, to create what Dr. Annese calls a Google Earthlike search engine, the first entirely reconstructed, whole-brain atlas available to anyone who wants to log on.

They’re calling it the “Brain Observatory”, and it seems modeled after the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) Project. The astronomy version will make public databases consisting of raw data from an ongoing wide-field sky survey. Individuals will be able to use the data for their own research projects, teaching, whatever they want. It’s astroinformatics for the masses.

The brain-scanning equivalent ought to be vastly cheaper, at least for the data collection. I mean, we’re talking about a telescope that cost $390 million to build. You could slice up a whole lot of brains for that kind of money. For the telescope, the public database access is a minor part of the total budget; for the Brain Observatory the database is a larger fraction of the total.

The common thread: electronic sensors have now made it possible to collect more data than any single research team can possibly use.

Still, browsing the project’s website, I don’t see a lot of evidence that this public access model is going to come about. For one thing, there’s no real mention of it; for another, their server setup can’t manage to sling Flash still pictures at a decent rate. And making an “atlas” available to everyone isn’t quite the same as making data available to anyone.

If all goes as planned, and the Brain Observatory catalogs a diverse collection of normal and abnormal brains and if, crucially, other laboratories apply similar techniques to their own collections brain scientists will have data that will keep them busy for generations.... With more of this kind of data, Dr. Witelson said, well be able to look at all sorts of comparisons, for example, comparing the brain of people who are superb at math with those who are not so good.

Sounds a little more provocative than astronomy. Especially if they’re genotyping all the subjects. Wow, what a waste of money it would be to slice up all these brains and not make genome-wide SNPs available with them.

Oh, to explain the title quote:

You could take someone like Wayne Gretzky, for example, she added, who could know not only where the puck was but where it was going to be who was apparently seeing a fourth dimension, time and see whether he had any special anatomical features.

Now, that sounds like a fun holiday party game. Which living person would you most like to see donate her brain to the Brain Observatory?