New BRAIN Initiative to provide insight into human mind

BY SEAN SIMONEAU ‘13
Contributing Writer

This past Tuesday, President Obama presented his plans for a new scientific research project to develop the technology for mapping the human brain. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN Initiative, is an effort to move scientific progress forward into the 21st century, and if it goes through, it will lead to one of the largest scientific endeavors in history.

Obama is hoping to replicate the success of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in not only economic, but also scientific, growth. The HGP, started in 1990, was a joint international research project that aimed to map human DNA. The initiative was projected to cost three billion dollars in 1991 and take until 2005 to complete, but it was completed two years ahead of schedule, in 2003, and came in around budget, even with inflation. One study in 2011, which Obama cited in his 2013 State of the Union address, estimated that, for every dollar spent on the project, $141 was returned to the economy in advancements and jobs. While this study is not entirely verified, even conservative estimates find a 60-to-one return on the total cost of the project. The cost is not the important factor. Without the HGP, the modern medical world would not exist. Our ability to diagnose and treat disease, genetic or otherwise, is a direct result of that project. Forensics, anthropology, biology, and agriculture also directly benefited from our increased understanding of the human genetic code.

The success of the HGP is the driving factor behind Obama’s BRAIN Initiative. If we could map the brain, we would gain access into the neural inner workings to such a level that was thought impossible only a few short years ago.
Neurological injuries and disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, could be observed, studied, and hopefully cured by understanding how individual neurons interact within the complex structure of the brain. We could gain insight into how memories, thoughts, and emotions are formed and how we process the constant sensory information from all around us. However, the technology to do this does not currently exist, hence the BRAIN Initiative. Its efforts will develop the necessary tools needed to take the next step into our inner world.

The project will launch with about $100 million in start-up funds in the President’s 2014 Fiscal Year Budget. On the federal end, three main agencies will tackle this gigantic undertaking, working in total cooperation with one another. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are the largest recipients of the funds, with a minor, yet vital, amount allotted for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NIH will act as the central nervous system of the operation, bringing together the resources of 15 NIH Institutes and Centers under the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research Initiative. The NSF will be responsible for creating the necessary tools, from molecular probes to supercomputers, which will be needed to record and analyze the massive volume of data that will be collected. DARPA will also be involved in instances of research and development, as well as devising applications for the new technology.

There are already anticipated medical and military applications, as the discoveries will not only assist in the study of brain trauma and disease, but can expose the mechanisms behind psychological illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder. The agency also plans to form think tanks, in cooperation with the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, to tackle the legal, ethical, and societal questions that may arise from these findings.

Like the Human Genome Project, this initiative will also involve partnerships between federal and private research institutions, including the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. These private ventures are expected to donate at least $122 million annually over the course of the 10 year project.

Understanding our own brains is important not only scientifically, but also socially. Brain injuries account for about a third of all injury-related deaths in the US and cost over $77 billion per year. It is estimated that one in four American adults suffer from mental disorders and one in 88 children are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders. If we can prevent or cure these illnesses, it is worth any cost. The results of this Initiative will benefit many millions of people both directly and indirectly, and will be the vanguard of the new wave of scientific discovery for the foreseeable future.

Questions? Email Sean at ssimonea@fandm.edu.

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