Skip to main content

Is BlueBrain worth the Billion Dollars? Ask the Zebrafish

Remember the Zebrafish? That likeable little thing is termed the 'workhorse' model organism in developmental biology (and nobody has a problem with this metaphor). Be it as it is - Zebrafish are the pet model organism for brain studies for essentially two reasons: they are easy to breed - and the larvae are transparent, allowing for easy access to neuronal imaging. Recently Florian Engert and coworkers put paralysed zebrafish larvae in an experimental setup that is highly reminiscent of The Matrix, letting the fishlet experience a virtual world of environment-simulations and study the reactions to the stimuli by optically monitoring brain-functions via a fluorescent reaction to calcium-flow (which, you guessed it, is related to cell-activity)(see Nature 493, p467). The calcium-indicator is actually expressed by a transgenic line of fish (or other even less cuddly animals like fruit-flies, clamped under a microscope with their legs moving freely on a little ball). As reported in the top-tier journal Nature, the versatility and recent innovation in those techniques, open the floodgates to top-tier journals such as Nature, which would historically rather favour experiments on higher organisms. The beauty of the experiments lies not only in the widely accepted belief that it is morally more acceptable to tape a fruit-fly to a microscope than to insert electrodes into the brain of a mammal but also in the relative simplicity of the neuronal network. There is hope to get "a wiring diagram of the whole brain that can relate structure to function" - as Florian Engert says. This would be a great base for understanding a complete network consisting of about 300.000 neurons. How modest and realistic this rollerblading, motorcycling and fiery lecturer is - compared to the billion-dollar-supported big-mouthing Henry Markram who claims to be able to model the whole human brain (about 100 billion neurons) in a supercomputer, if only the Dollar-influx is right.
("See you tomorrow", says the dayfly. Liar!)


Popular posts from this blog

Academics should be blogging? No.

"blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now" The London School of Economics and Political Science states in one of their, yes, Blogs . It is wrong. The arguments just seem so right: "faster communication of scientific results", "rapid interaction with colleagues" "responsibility to give back results to the public". All nice, all cuddly and warm, all good. But wrong. It might be true for scientoid babble. But this is not how science works.  Scientists usually follow scientific methods to obtain results. They devise, for example, experiments to measure a quantity while keeping the boundary-conditions in a defined range. They do discuss their aims, problems, techniques, preliminary results with colleagues - they talk about deviations and errors, successes and failures. But they don't do that wikipedia-style by asking anybody for an opinion . Scientific discussion needs a set

My guinea pig wants beer!

Rather involuntary train rides (especially long ones, going to boring places for a boring event) are good for updates on some thoughts lingering in the lower levels of the brain-at-ease. My latest trip (from Berlin to Bonn) unearthed the never-ending squabble about the elusive 'free will'. Neuroscientists make headlines proving with alacrity the absence of free will by experimenting with brain-signals that precede the apparent willful act - by as much as seven seconds! Measuring brain-activity way before the human guinea pig actually presses a button with whatever hand or finger he desires, they predict with breathtaking reproducibility the choice to be made. So what? Is that the end of free will? I am afraid that those neuroscientists would accept only non-predictability as a definite sign of free will. But non-predictability results from two possible scenarios: a) a random event (without a cause) b) an event triggered by something outside of the system (but caused).

No theory - no money!

A neuroscientist I was talking to recently complained that the Higgs-research,even the Neutrino-fluke at CERN is getting humungous funding while neuroscience is struggling for support at a much more modest level. This, despite the undisputed fact that understanding our brain, and ultimately ourselves, is the most exciting challenge around. Henry Markram of EPFL in Switzerland   is one of the guys aiming for big, big funding to simulate the complete brain. After founding the brain institute and developing methods to analyze and then reconstruct elements of the brain in a supercomputer he now applies for 1.5 Billion Euro in EU-funding for the 'flagship-projects' of Blue Brain -and many believe his project is simply too big to fail. Some call the project daring, others audacious. It is one of the so very few really expensive life-science endeavours. Why aren't there more like that around? Why do we seem to accept the bills for monstrous physics experiments more easily? Is