The New York Times Magazine
In 2005, Sebastian Seung suffered the academic equivalent of an existential crisis. More than a decade earlier, with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Harvard, Seung made a dramatic career switch into neuroscience, a gamble that seemed to be paying off. He had earned tenure from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a year faster than the norm and was immediately named a full professor, an unusual move that reflected the sense that Seung was something of a superstar. His lab was underwritten with generous funding by the elite Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was a popular teacher who traveled the world — Zurich; Seoul, South Korea; Palo Alto, Calif. — delivering lectures on his mathematical theories of how neurons might be wired together to form the engines of thought.
And yet Seung, a man so naturally exuberant that he was known for staging ad hoc dance performances with Harvard Square’s street musicians, was growing increasingly depressed. He and his colleagues spent their days arguing over how the brain might function, but science offered no way to scan it for the answers. “It seemed like decades could go by,” Seung told me recently, “and you would never know one way or another whether any of the theories were correct.”
That November, Seung sought the advice of David Tank, a mentor he met at Bell Laboratories who was attending the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington. Over lunch in the dowdy dining room of a nearby hotel, Tank advised a radical cure. A former colleague in Heidelberg, Germany, had just built a device that imaged brain tissue with enough resolution to make out the connections between individual neurons. But drawing even a tiny wiring diagram required herculean efforts, as people traced the course of neurons through thousands of blurry black-and-white images. What the field needed, Tank said, was a computer program that could trace them automatically — a way to map the brain’s connections by the millions, opening a new area of scientific discovery. For Seung to tackle the problem, though, it would mean abandoning the work that had propelled him to the top of his discipline in favor of a highly speculative engineering project.
Back in Cambridge, Seung spoke with two of his graduate students, who, like everyone else in the lab, thought the idea was terrible. Over the next few weeks, as the three of them talked and argued, Seung became convinced that the Heidelberg project was bound to be more interesting, and ultimately less risky, than continuing with the theoretical work he had lost faith in. “Make sure your passports are ready,” he said finally. “We are going to Germany next month.”
Seung and his two students spent a good part of January 2006 in Germany, learning the finicky ways of high-resolution brain-image analysis from Winfried Denk, the scientist who built the device. The three returned to M.I.T. invigorated, but Seung’s decision looked, for quite a while, like an act of career suicide. Colleagues at M.I.T. whispered that Seung had gone off the rails, and in the more snobbish circles of theoretical neuroscience, the engineering project was seen as, in Seung’s words, “too blue-collar.” In 2010, the Hughes institute pulled the money that funded his lab, and he had to scramble. When his wife went into labor with their daughter in the middle of the night, he was working on a grant application; he wound up staying awake for 36 hours straight. (“Science,” Einstein once wrote, “is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”) As the years passed, the advances out of the Seung lab were met with indifference, which was particularly hard on his graduate students. “Every time they had a success, they were depressed about it, because everyone else thought it was dumb,” Seung said. “It killed me.”
The race to map the connectome has hardly left the starting line, with only modest funding from the federal government and initial experiments confined to the brains of laboratory animals like fruit flies and mice. But it’s an endeavor heavy with moral and philosophical implications, because to map a human connectome would be, Seung has argued, to capture a person’s very essence: every memory, every skill, every passion. When the brain isn’t wired properly, it can lead to disorders like autism and schizophrenia — “connectopathies” that could be revealed in the map, perhaps suggesting treatments. And if science were to gain the power to record and store connectomes, then it would be natural to speculate, as Seung and others have, that technology might some day enable a recording to play again, thereby reanimating a human consciousness. The mapping of connectomes, its most zealous proponents believe, would confer nothing less than immortality.
Picture: Soon-Beom HongAndrew ZaleskyLuca CocchiAlex FornitoEun-Jung ChoiHo-Hyun KimJeong-Eun SuhChang-Dai KimJae-Won KimSoon-Hyung Yi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons