Obama makes mapping the brain a governmental priority

By on February 26, 2013
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The Obama administration reportedly has a project in the works which promises to be a tremendous impetus for the field of neuroscience. In his State of the Union address on February 12, President Obama recognized brain research as one of the opportunities for the government to “invest in the best ideas.” Although the administration is not intending to release specific details until sometime in March, what we currently know is that a huge project aimed at creating a comprehensive map of the human brain and its activity is currently being planned.

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The project is intended to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genetics. Much like the Human Genome Project, this new undertaking is likely to be a decade-long effort involving government agencies, academic institutions, private research foundations, and a myriad of individual experts in neuroscience and nanotechnology. The project will likely cost billions, and is expected to be part of President Obama’s anticipated budget proposal next month. However, this information is not finalized and it is currently unclear how much federal money will be devoted to this project.

The brain, composed of a tremendously complex network of an estimated 100 billion neurons, remains one of science’s greatest mysteries. Even with newly developed technologies improving our view into the brain, it is still only possible to observe a relatively small number of neurons at once. Optimistic proponents of this project hope that it will remedy such limitations by leading to enhanced technology for diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, in addition to providing novel understanding of the mechanisms behind a host of neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. By drawing on our county’s unique resources, the ultimate goal of the project is to gain increased insight into the mental processes involved in perception, behavior, learning, and consciousness.

Unlike the Human Genome Project, which in comparison had a clearly defined method for achieving its goal, a major component of the initial work on this new project will be to elucidate the optimal method for accurately mapping of the brain. One potential method, proposed by a number of leading neuroscientists, involves the creation of molecule-size machines which can act sensors and directly measure brain activity at the cellular level, using synthetic DNA as a storage mechanism.

Scientists involved in planning the project hope for around $300 million per year from the government, which equates to $3 billion over the next decade. With so much of the current political rhetoric being critical of increased government spending while our national debt sits at an exorbitant $16 trillion, the question of whether this spending is justified will certainly arise. Perhaps in anticipation of this concern, President Obama put the issue in perspective during his address by noting that “every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy.” He continued by adding that “now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.” As one of the institutions poised at the forefront of neuroscience research, this project promises to hold significant benefits for UAB.

Daniel Gilliam
Contributor
dgilliam@uab.edu

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