Obama Goes Public With Brain-Mapping Plan

Posted: April 3, 2013 in News, Science
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Obama Goes Public With Brain-Mapping Plan

President Obama officially announced a new brain research initiative in a press conference at the White House this morning, something he first hinted at in his State of the Union address in February. In its first year, the project would devote roughly $100 million in public funding and a similar amount from private foundations, to develop new tools for mapping neural circuits.

“The human brain is at the present time the most complicated organ in the known universe,” Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told reporters on a conference call this morning.  Understanding how circuits of neurons contribute to the complex properties of the brain and how they break down in disease is one of the biggest scientific challenges of our time, Collins said. “We aim through this very ambitious project, some might even call it audacious, to begin to unravel those mysteries.”

Since the first hints of the plan were reported, the project has gotten a mixed reaction from scientists. Proponents say the field of neuroscience is now ripe for a comprehensive effort to understand how circuits of thousands of neurons work together to process information. By mapping every electrical spike in every neuron in a network, they hope to understand the neural computations that underlie everything from perception to memory to movement.

But other scientists are skeptical. Some have argued that this approach to mapping brain activity is misguided and unlikely to yield important insights. Others are concerned that the effort would divert funds from individual labs, which are already facing historically long odds for getting their work funded by the government.

Details of the plan are still in short supply. But the White House hopes to launch the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative next year with money from the National Institutes of Health, Darpa and the National Science Foundation. Private foundations, including the Allen Brain Institute for Brain Science and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will kick in tens of millions more.

The project has inevitably drawn comparisons — by advocates and detractors alike — to the Human Genome Project.

At the outset that effort too was criticized by scientists as ill-conceived and overhyped, aimed more at technology development than advancing science, and destined to divert precious resources from scientists working in the age-old model of generating hypotheses and carefully testing them in their labs, says Yale science historian Daniel Kevles.

On the conference call with reporters, Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, said he held in his hand a DNA sequencer the size of a postage stamp — evidence, he said, of how far science has come since the genome project officially launched in 1990. ”You were doing really well if you could sequence a thousand letters of the code a day, and we knew we had to get a thousand letters every second, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, over a period of 18 months to get the job done.”

Today the genome project is widely regarded as a success, but like most successful Big Science projects — from mapping coastlines to mapping the heavens to hunting the Higgs boson — it had a concrete goal, Kevles said in an interview with Wired last month. “With the neuroscience initiative, how well-defined is the object to be observed?” Kevles said. “It’s not clear to me it’s well-defined at all at this stage.”

Today’s announcement did little to clarify the specific scientific goals of the project, but a working group led by two highly regarded neuroscientists, Cornelia Bargmann and William Newsome, will develop a preliminary report by this fall, outlining specific scientific goals and funding priorities.

Ready or not, the era of Big Neuroscience has arrived. The BRAIN initiative was preceded by the giant Human Brain Project, a European effort to build a computational model of the human brain; the Human Connectome Project, which studies individual differences in brain anatomy and function; and the Allen Brain Atlases of gene expression throughout the brain.

Such large-scale initiatives won’t — and shouldn’t — ever completely supplant the traditional model of individual labs generating and testing hypotheses, Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute, told Wired last month. ”Small science will continue to be a driver of discovery, but if you really want to understand a piece of tissue like the cerebral cortex, you need to do systematic large-scale research to integrate things,” Koch said.

“We now for the first time have the technical capabilities and computational power to probe the brain at high enough spatial and temporal resolution,” computational neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski wrote in an e-mail to Wired last month. Sejnowski, who’s based at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, another of the private partners in the new initiative, has been a vocal advocate for the initiative.

“These are enabling technologies that will allow us to ask new questions and perhaps find unexpected answers,” Sejnowski said. “For those of us who care deeply about brain function and brain disorders this will be a remarkable era.”


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