Feature

Brain shot

Neuroscientists scramble to take on ambitious presidential challenge

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2:00pm, February 7, 2014

BRAIN POWER  Deciphering how the brain’s circuitry produces thought and behavior is an ambitious and enticing goal on the scale of the Apollo Program or the Human Genome Project. But the neuroscientists involved in a new federal effort have many challenges ahead.

When the president of the United States makes a request, scientists usually listen. Physicists created the atomic bomb for President Roosevelt. NASA engineers put men on the moon for President Kennedy. Biologists presented their first draft of the human genetic catalog to an appreciative President Clinton.

So when President Obama announced an ambitious plan to understand the brain in April 2013, people were quick to view it as the next Manhattan Project, or Human Genome Project, or moon shot.

But these analogies may not be so apt. Compared with understanding the mysterious inner workings of the brain, those other endeavors started with an end in sight.

In a human brain, 85 billion nerve cells communicate via trillions of connections using complex patterns of electrical jolts and more than 100 different chemicals. A pea-sized lump of brain tissue contains more information than the Library of Congress.

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