March 10, 2013

Basketball And The BAM Project

By Dan Peterson

Imagine an NCAA basketball coach trying to create a game plan for their first March Madness game with absolutely no video footage of their upcoming opponent.  Sure, he has their roster with player names, height/weight and positions.  He also has a set of specific stats that show the performance of each player and the team during the season.  Yet, there is no opportunity to see the team play as a unit, how they move the ball, or their communication.  The resulting game strategy would be full of educated guesses and assumptions based on just the macro picture of the roster and the micro world of data and statistics.


Welcome to the world of today’s neuroscientists.  To study the brain, they have the 30,000 foot view from tools like functional MRI scans and the microscopic world of neurons and biochemistry.  Everything in the middle, the constant communications between 100 billion neurons, is unable to be observed, leading to theories and best guesses at how we make decisions, free throws and no-look passes.

Much like a library of game video or, better yet, a live stream of the action, researchers need a way to observe and measure our brain’s massive amount of electrical activity and connectivity.  “We don’t actually understand (how circuits of neurons) generate all these interesting behaviors we have, like speech and language and thoughts and memory,” said John Donoghue, neuroscientist at Brown University, in a recent CNN interview.

Enter the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project.  While there are many ongoing brain mapping research projects currently underway, President Obama alluded to a much more ambitious initiative in his State of the Union address last month.  Since then, details have begun to emerge for a 10-year, $3 billion project to do for brain research what the Human Genome Project did for biology and genetics.  An article published last week in Science hints at the “big rock” goals for BAM as defined by a cross functional team of 11 scientists, including not only neuroscientists but also experts in genetics, nanotechnology, and bioengineering.

Here’s a quick (and energetic) intro to BAM:

“We need something large scale to try to build tools for the future,” Rafael Yuste, a neurobiologist at Columbia University, told MIT Technology Review. “We view ourselves as tool builders. I think we could provide to the scientific community the methods that could be used for the next stage in neuroscience.”

To be sure, a project of this size and cost is not being done to help a point guard know when to pass or shoot.  Trying to solve brain disorders like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia are much higher on the priority list.

Then again, think of the possibilities in just basketball:

-  What is happening in a player’s head when he struggles at the foul line?  We have theories of “choking” but to actually know the electrical patterns of skill versus stress could suggest new ways to deal with it.
-  How is “court vision” represented in the brain and how can we identify and/or train it?
-  Practice and repetition seem to teach a new play or skills to a team, but how can we accelerate the rate of learning?

Time will tell if this latest research initiative provides any of the benefits it promises.  It certainly could fill in the gaps of how we understand athletes as living, thinking people. It might even help us fill out our March Madness brackets.

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