Obama seeking to boost study of human brain

February 18, 2013

(Credit: stock image)

The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort 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, The New York Times reports.

The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations, and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.

Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses.

Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.

The project, which could ultimately cost billions of dollars, is expected to be part of the president’s budget proposal next month. And, four scientists and representatives of research institutions said they had participated in planning for what is being called the Brain Activity Map project [apparently a planned but unannounced NIH project].

In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government should “invest in the best ideas.”

“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”

Scientists involved in the planning said they hoped that federal financing for the project would be more than $300 million a year, which if approved by Congress would amount to at least $3 billion over the 10 years. The Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion.

But a group of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists say they believe that technologies are at hand to make it possible to observe and gain a more complete understanding of the brain, and to do it less intrusively. In June in the journal Neuron,six leading scientists proposed pursuing a number of new approaches for mapping the brain.

One possibility is to build a complete model map of brain activity by creating fleets of molecule-size machines to noninvasively act as sensors to measure and store brain activity at the cellular level. The proposal envisions using synthetic DNA as a storage mechanism for brain activity.

“Not least, we might expect novel understanding and therapies for diseases such as schizophrenia and autism,” wrote the scientists, who include Dr. Church; Ralph J. Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego; A. Paul Alivisatos, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Miyoung Chun, a molecular geneticist who is the vice president for science programs at the Kavli Foundation; Michael L. Roukes, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology; and Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.

The initiative will be organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to scientists who have participated in planning meetings.

The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will also participate in the project, the scientists said, as will private foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

A meeting held on Jan. 17 at the California Institute of Technology was attended by the three government agencies, as well as neuroscientists, nanoscientists and representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. According to a summary of the meeting, it was held to determine whether computing facilities existed to capture and analyze the vast amounts of data that would come from the project. The scientists and technologists concluded that they did.

They also said that a series of national brain “observatories” should be created as part of the project, like astronomical observatories.