President Obama Unveils Ambitious Brain-Mapping Initiative

Apr 5 2013

President Obama Unveils Ambitious Brain-Mapping Initiative

brain-mappingAlmost exactly 10 years after the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, President Obama on Tuesday unveiled another large, government-backed research project: the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. Calling the brain “an enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked,” President Obama laid out broad plans for the project, which will devote more than $100 million to brain-mapping research in 2014, and has the potential “improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people.”

Once known as the Brain Activity Map, the project’s inception dates to a 2011 conference in London organized by Miyoung Chun, PhD, vice president of Science Programs at the Kavli Foundation. Later, during the 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned the brain-mapping project. After claiming that every “dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy,” he noted now “is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”

According to the White House, by producing “dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact,” the brain-mapping initiative will help researchers accelerate the development of new technologies to inform improved treatments for a variety of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. The initiative also aims to reduce language barriers, “prevent, treat, or reverse” post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in veterans, and create jobs in the “cutting-edge industries of the future.”

Over the next few months, a “high-level working group” led by Rockefeller University’s Cornelia Bargmann, PhD, and Stanford’s William Newsome, PhD, will “articulate the scientific goals of the BRAIN initiative and develop a multi-year scientific plan for achieving these goals, including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates,” according to the NIH.

“We still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” the president said during his address Tuesday, adding that the BRAIN initiative will change that. The knowledge gained from a sustained, focused study of the brain will “be transformative.”

The Funding to Fuel the Initiative

brain-mappingBecause large-scale research endeavors don’t come for free, a significant portion of the president’s address dealt with the financial aspects of the initiative. The project will launch with an initial investment of $120 million split up between three government agencies. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will allocate $50 million of its 2014 budget to the initiative, while the NIH and the NSF will contribute $40 million and $20 million, respectively.

Several private institutions have also promised to support the project. The Allen Institute for Brain Science will spend $60 million a year to fund brain-mapping projects at the Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute plans to spend $30 million annually. For its part, the Kavli Foundation has pledged $4 million a year for the next ten years.

However, the government’s funding is subject to Congress’ approval, and House Republicans have already indicated a desire to sharply cut future spending. The 2014 budget proposal outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, called for approximately $85 billion in cuts in 2014, including cuts to research and technology. Though the House’s budget was defeated in the Senate, its proposal and ongoing partisan rancor calls into question whether any new funding would be approved.

Nonetheless, a number of conservatives have already come out in support of the BRAIN initiative. Notably, Newt Gingrich issued a statement about the project, calling it “a very important step toward the most dramatic breakthroughs in human health.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also indicated some measure of support for the brain-mapping project, albeit by saying that he favored “reprioritizing” money spent onpolitical and social science research into expanded medical research.”

Rep. Cantor’s comments bring up key questions about the BRAIN initiative’s funding: where the money would come from, and whether funding the project would constitute robbing Peter to pay Paul. Will the money be new, or would the funding be redirected from other projects already being supported by the NIH, DARPA, and the NSF?

Questions About Feasibility, Goals

brain-mappingIn addition to the questions about how the project will be paid for, the fact that BRAIN does not yet have clear goals — unlike the Human Genome Project, which aimed to provide an accurate sequence of the human genome — has led some researchers to be skeptical of the initiative. Whether a top-down approach to such a complicated project would be effective has also been an area of concern.

Indeed, during an “Open for Questions” session with Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the NIH, and Arati Prabhakar, PhD, DARPA director, Twitter users questioned a number of aspects of the initiative.

While several questions were concerned with BRAIN funding, other questions about how the project’s findings would be made public, and whether brain-mapping should begin on organisms simpler than humans, were also posed. Users also brought up ethical issues associated with such research, and asked how the initiative’s findings might be translated into clinical or technological use.

Possibly in anticipation of such questions, in his introduction of the BRAIN initiative President Obama noted past returns on government investment in science and technology. Both computer chips and GPS technologies got their start with government funding, and Google received support from the NSF when the company was in its infancy, he pointed out.

“We’ve been a nation of dreamers and risk-takers,” President Obama said. “When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.”

“There is a great deal of exciting work going on in brain-mapping that has the potential to significantly impact the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of childhood diseases such as autism,” said Tom Curran, PhD, FRS, deputy scientific director of CHOP Research. “President Obama’s announcement of an initial $100M investment in the BRAIN initiative is a great first step in mapping the human brain.”

To learn more about the BRAIN initiative, see the NIH’s page on the project.