President Obama last week outlined a government-sponsored initiative to map the human brain, casting the proposal as a way to discover new cures for neurological disease and strengthen the economy. Here’s a look at what the program will mean:
1 What it is: The BRAIN initiative — short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — is modeled after the Human Genome Project, in which the federal government partnered with philanthropies and scientific entrepreneurs to identify and characterize the nearly 25,000 genes that make up human DNA. Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the NIH, described by the officials as a “dream team,” and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.
2 Goals: The project’s ambitious goals include understanding how the brain forms memories and controls human behavior; how it becomes damaged by conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and autism; and how it can be repaired when afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses. “A human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections,” Obama said. In the absence of a detailed map of the brain’s complex circuitry and operating instructions that could help troubleshoot when the brain’s wiring goes awry, scientists often grope in the dark for therapies that can treat Alzheimer’s or autism or to reverse the effects of stroke, Obama said. “As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mysteries of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” the president said. “So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked.”
3 The funding: The project would use about $110 million in federal money over the next fiscal year to begin a long-term effort to better understand the brain. Those funds will be included in Obama’s budget proposal, scheduled for release next week, and would be combined with annual private-sector investments of roughly an equal amount. Funding in future years will be negotiated yearly. Private sector partners the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Kavli Foundation have committed $158 million to the project. “Ideas are what power our economy,” Obama said. “When we invest in the best ideas before anyone else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anyone else does.”
4 The reaction: “Out of this is going to come a foundation of understanding the brain that we have dreamed of all through human history,” said Dr. Francis Collins, who was in charge of the government’s role in the Human Genome Project and is now director of the National Institutes of Health.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the project “is exactly the type of research we should be funding,” but called for funds already allocated to be diverted to pay for it.
“Where you put a major investment in understanding the most complicated thing we know — the human brain — there could be benefits to every aspect of society,” said Dr. John C. Mazziotta, a leading neuroscientist who is executive vice dean of the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine. He said scientists could make new discoveries about aging, education, creativity, psychiatric disorders and social problems such as homelessness.