Obama unveils brain science program

Initiative would develop tools to measure coordinated neuron activity

President Barack Obama has unveiled a long-term neuroscience research initiative that will develop new tools and technologies to study human and animal brains on larger scales than currently possible. Announced April 2, the BRAIN Initiative could ultimately help researchers better understand human behavior and thought and develop new ways to diagnose, treat and cure neurological and psychiatric diseases.

The initiative is slated to begin in October, with $100 million budgeted for the project in fiscal year 2014. The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will lead the effort, which Obama likened to the Human Genome Project in terms of its ambitious aims and the scientific and health benefits the initiative could yield.

The human brain remains one of the greatest scientific mysteries. Researchers can now probe only a small number of neurons simultaneously or get relatively crude looks at specific regions or the entirety of the brain. But scientists believe that understanding the action of circuits containing thousands or millions of coordinated neurons could lead to a better understanding of how the brain works — as well as what goes wrong when it doesn’t.

Short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, the BRAIN Initiative would seek to develop tools and technologies to measure and manipulate the firing patterns of all neurons in a circuit. Other new tools — hardware, software and databases — would store the data, make it public and analyze it. The initiative takes its inspiration from a research vision known as the Brain Activity Map, which originated from a group of neuroscientists, nanoscientists and research groups.
Eventually, researchers could apply the tools and findings to medicine. For example, DARPA — motivated by mental issues and brain and limb injuries in soldiers — is interested in developing better prosthetics and new ways to diagnose and treat brain diseases, says Arati Prabhakar, the agency’s director.

Many questions about the project remain unanswered: A detailed timetable and the associated research milestones haven’t been spelled out. Ethical dilemmas may arise from research that measures and manipulates neurons. And the initiative’s full funding portfolio remains unclear.

To iron out a path forward, NIH has convened what it calls a “dream team,” a workgroup of scientists — supporters and skeptics alike — who will help develop a timetable and milestones and guide research priorities. By this summer, the group will recommend what should get funded in year one, NIH Director Francis Collins says. Meanwhile, Obama has asked his bioethics commission to examine potential ethical issues.

Although research budgets have shrunk, Collins notes that the $100 million for the project’s first year would be less than 1 percent of NIH’s total budget. Moreover, he points out, neuroscience has recently made some advances demonstrating that the initiative is feasible.

“Right now it seems like the wrong time to say we’re going to put this on hold when the promise is as great as it is,” Collins says.

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