Washington U at St. Louis published an article here about the release of the first large chunk of open data from the Connectome project, which consists of 2 TB of data derived from scanning 68 healthy volunteers using two different imaging techniques. The project itself is here, and if you have the sort of computing power to handle this sort of data, you can gain access by registering or by paying them to ship you an external drive with the data on it.
On its own this is of course a very exciting piece of news, because we can reasonably anticipate that institutions will find a lot of good uses for this data, and that its utility will prompt the creation of further data. I persist in thinking that researchers are being over-modest in their lists of possible uses, since in essence what we’re talking about is a functional model of the human brain. I know it’s gauche to point this out, but everything in a given economy is about the desires and decision-making of the human brain, and having a real model to replace sales voodoo with would be an incredible edge for early adopters.
In any event, it’s also exciting to see a focus on mapping the interactivity of healthy brains. A lot of neuroscience I’d consider foundational focuses on disorder, and follows older traditions like philosophy in assuming we know what a baseline brain looks like and does. Disorder studies are incredibly useful, of course, especially in patients with extremely discrete damage, but they’re necessarily hard to replicate. I’m in a minority in believing that animal models are not actually that useful here, since the differences in scale and complexity between species is so great, and obviously ethics preclude giving a large group of people identical brain damage to exclude epiphenomena. Studying healthy model does more, I think, to get at the incredibly counter-intuitive ways that the brain actually works. I think that a lot of the more troubling implications of neuroscience get marginalized because they present in damaged individuals, and so the unpleasant conclusions can be in some sense limited to atypical populations. In fact, something like paralysis denial in an otherwise functional person blows a lot of the naive or traditional conceptions of mind out of the water, but it’s easier to ignore than a gigantic pile of data on healthy brains.
Having this much data exist open-source like this also increases the likelihood of getting an argument based on neuro evidence admitted. The law looks to how well accepted a novel scientific theory is, and the more institutions and researchers are working on a project the sooner it will generate the sort of consensus capable of being admitted. My hope is that the Big Data/AI people will get interested in this, because technology often accelerates most rapidly under competitive market conditions. In any event, this is great news, and I applaud the teams working on this.