Magazine article AI Magazine

Review of Neuroinformatics: An Overview of the Human Brain Project

Magazine article AI Magazine

Review of Neuroinformatics: An Overview of the Human Brain Project

Article excerpt

In 1990, President George Bush proclaimed the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain. The numerous disciplines trying to solve the puzzle of the brain and behavior fall under the umbrella known as the neurosciences. It is the fastest developing industry in the natural sciences (Koslow and Huerta 1997). Myriad methods and tools that come out of the computer and information sciences, collectively referred to as informatics, are being deployed to assist with the neuroscience research enterprise. Thus, at the intersection of neuroscience and informatics is neuroinformatics. Neuroinformatics: An Overview of the Human Brain Project is an enlightening snapshot of this evolving field.

The primary federal vehicle for propelling the field of neuroinformatics is the Human Brain Project. It was initiated in response to a report published by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine's 1989 Committee on a National Neural Circuitry Database (Martin and Pechura 1991) and is funded by 16 organizations across 5 federal agencies: (1) National Institutes of Health (NIH), (2) National Science Foundation, (3) United States Department of Defense, (4) National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and (5) United States Department of Energy. Additional background and perspective can be found in Huerta and Koslow (1996). The Human Brain Project is being led by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one of the NIH institutes.

The book's editors, Stephen Koslow and Michael Huerta, are the director and associate director, respectively, of the Division of Basic and Clinical Neuroscience Research at NIMH. Neuroinformatics: An Overview of the Human Brain Project is a progress report from the first phase of federal funding for the Human Brain Project. Reports from some of these first projects make up the majority of the book, with the balance of the book providing an overview of neuroinformatics. The book's foreword provides interesting history and perspective on the incubation of neuroinformatics. The preface and first two chapters of the book explain neuroinformatics and the motivation for it. As with so many other fields, there has been an information explosion in neuroscience research. Data are produced by tens of thousands of investigators in hundreds of journals. The typical annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, for example, has over 10,000 individual presentations. Furthermore, neuroscience data are complex and varied. These data span many orders of magnitude in both time and space dimensions, with phenomena from microseconds to years and from nanometers to tens of meters; come in many forms, including text, images, and time series; come from the analysis of a wide range of species, from simple invertebrates to humans; and come from many levels of analysis, ranging from the molecular to systems to behavior. All these dimensions are explored in both normal and diseased organisms.

The book goes on to point out that neuroscience has also witnessed extensive specialization, with specialties as diverse as molecular geneticists and cognitive psychologists. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to integrate data outside one's specialty, making it less likely that conceptual links will be formed between disciplines. Fortunately, the past few decades have seen a parallel improvement in the accessibility of advanced computing resources, including both hardware and informatics software. How can informatics help the burgeoning field of neuroscience? The book outlines several ways:

First, one needs to recognize that neuroinformatics is not simply another scientific computing application in disguise. Whereas most scientific computing applications are specialized, neuroinformatics is meant to be an integrative approach. Researchers can create models that integrate information and provide a simple way to test, online, hypotheses about the system under study. This test, in turn, provides a benchmark for comparison of experimental results. …

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