President Obama announced plans this morning for a long-term research project to improve our understanding of the brain. Comparing it to the Human Genome Project, Obama said the brain-mapping initiative could lead to cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism, while fueling economic growth and job creation. Here’s what you need to know.
The announcement has been hotly anticipated since mid-February, when The New York Timesreported the President would soon seek funds from Congress to “examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.” At the time, we and others speculated that Obama’s plan would resemble a so-called Brain Activity Map (a.k.a. “BAM”) project outlined last year in the journal Neuron, and that the Administration might seek billions of dollars from Congress to set things in motion.
In fact, Obama announced this morning that the project will be called the BRAIN Initiative. The initial price tag: a paltry (relatively speaking) $100 million.
BRAIN stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies,” and the last word in that acronym is a telling one. When we spoke with Rafael Yuste (one of the neuroscientists whose advice the Obama Administration has sought in planning the initiative) back in February, he told us that the endeavor would be first and foremost “a technical development project.” The ultimate goal of the BRAIN may be to create a functional map of neuron activity throughout the human brain, but charting such a map is – as of today – impossible.
To create such a map will require tools that can measure the activity of any one of the brain’s tens of billions of neurons, along with the activity of any and all neurons it’s connected to. Scale this measurement up to the level of the entire brain and you’ve got yourself a functional activity map. Neuroscientists recently managed something akin to this in zebrafish embryos; but doing the same for a human brain – which contains about 85,000 times more neurons than that of a zebrafish – will require nothing short of a technological revolution in the field of neuroscience.
And so the BRAIN Initiative will focus largely on realizing new tools for imaging, recording, and eventually controlling neurons. “Great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science and engineering,” read a White House statement. Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, also emphasized collaboration. “It aims to bring together nanoscience, engineering and neurology to make sense of how the brain works,” he explains in the video featured below, and “how those circuits in the brain allow us to do all those complicated things, that currently we don’t understand.”
On the public-funding front, the NIH will be joined by the National Science Foundation and DARPA in supporting the Initiaive. Private partnerships include the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The effort is being launched with funding in Obama’s FY 2014 budget, to be proposed next week.