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Obama Promotes U.S.-Led Project to Map Brain

Obama Promotes U.S.-Led Project to Map Brain

Daily News Article   —   Posted on April 4, 2013
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(by Gautam Naik and Andrew Ackerman, The Wall Street Journal) WASHINGTON – The ambitious project to map the human brain that President Barack Obama detailed Tuesday faces uncertain funding and scientific challenges that could impede its success.

The project, first unveiled in February, is proposed to receive $100 million for its first year under next week’s White House budget plan. Mr. Obama acknowledged that Washington’s strained politics and tight finances [he is referring to necessary budget cuts] may make it difficult to ultimately secure that funding.

“None of this will be easy,” Mr. Obama said in outlining the initiative, dubbed BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). “But think about what we could do once we do crack this code.”

Such a brain map could improve the treatment of schizophrenia, epilepsy and other disorders. The money mainly would be used to develop novel technologies to produce images showing the brain at work – how, for example, a memory gets formed, how it is stored and how it is retrieved.

The scientific hurdles include the fact that there are as many neurons, or nerve cells, in the human brain – about 100 billion – as there are stars in the Milky Way. The neurons are linked by about 150 trillion connections known as synapses.

Some estimates suggest that if current technology were used, it would take years to map the roughly 10,000 synapses that branch from just a single neuron. By comparison, the sequencing of the first human genome involved the mapping of only three billion base-pair sequences of DNA.

Javier Provencio, a neurologist who specializes in brain injuries at the Cleveland Clinic, thinks the project will yield benefits but is unlikely to provide a complete map of the brain.

“For very simple things like going from thinking about your arm to actually moving your arm, it’s a pretty straightforward system, and we know what the connections are,” Dr. Provencio said. “Now try [understanding the circuitry] behind hunger, or being scared.…It’s simplistic to say we’re going to map all of that.”

Unlike the effort to decode the human genome, or the project to put a man on the moon, the mapping of the human brain is a fuzzy endeavor, with no obvious milestones along the way. And because it could cost billions of dollars over several decades to build a comprehensive brain map, long-term funding could be another challenge.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins noted that the government-funded Human Genome Project he led was kick-started with $28 million in its first year, and he said $100 million was enough to launch the brain-mapping plan.

“Until we really lay out what the milestones are, it will be very difficult to say what the right budget” is for the long term, Dr. Collins said.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), signaled Republicans are unlikely to back new spending to pay for the initiative. “This is exciting, important research and it would be appropriate for the White House to reprioritize existing research funding into these areas,” he said.

Any initial money would be split among the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, and the National Science Foundation.

In recent years, both public and private efforts have begun to map the basic wiring of the brain. The main idea behind the new U.S. government-led project is to come up with technology for exploring how the brain records, processes, stores and retrieves information.

Brain researchers elsewhere could benefit from any such advances. At the private Allen Institute for Brain Science, for example, scientists are trying to understand how the mouse brain processes visual information. One of their tools is a laser that can activate a neuron in the animal’s brain.

“The BRAIN initiative could refine [this technique] or come up with novel technologies” that may do the job a lot faster and more efficiently, said Allan Jones, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute.

Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.


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