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Obama launches multibillion-dollar brain-map project

US President Barack Obama today officially launched an ambitious multi-year project to probe the human brain in action. In a preview of his 2014 budget request, expected next week, he said he would ask Congress for about US$100 million to get the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative off the ground.

The ambitious plan, originally dubbed the Brain Activity Map, created a buzz when word of it crept out ahead of schedule in February. With big backers in the White House, such as Tom Kalil at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (see ‘Behind the scenes of a brain-mapping moon shot‘), it seemed as though the project had the chance of becoming a signature administration initiative. This morning in the grand East Room of the White House, Obama left little doubt of that, comparing the BRAIN Initiative to the US quest to put a man on the Moon and calling it “the next great American project”.

Between our ears, he said, “there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action.”

Current technology allows scientists to record the activity of up to hundreds of neurons in action. The BRAIN Initiative aspires to map the function of thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurons simultaneously, as they function at the speed of thought. Obama acknowledged the difficulties involved, but said: “Think about what we could do once we do crack this code.” He imagined an amputee playing the piano or throwing a baseball, people fully recovering after a stroke or traumatic brain injury and cures for autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

Significantly, the White House has engaged Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York, to co-chair a National Institutes of Health (NIH) committee that will develop a detailed scientific plan for the project including timetables, milestones and cost estimates. (Neurobiologist William Newsome of Stanford University will be the other co-chair.) Bargmann had been one of the proposed project’s vocal critics, suggesting to Nature that it represented “central planning inside the [Washington, DC] Beltway” and worrying whether it would crowd out “bottom-up”, investigator-initiated research.

The president’s 2014 budget, due for release as soon as next week, will request $50 million in funding for the BRAIN initiative through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; $40 million from the NIH, mainly through an existing multi-institute initiative called the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research; and $20 million from the National Science Foundation. Details on the kind of work that each agency will contribute are available on this fact sheet. The project is expected to cost billions of dollars over more than a decade.

The White House also noted its plans to collaborate with private foundations that are already at work in dynamic brain-mapping efforts. It highlighted commitments from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle ($60 million annually over four years); the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s campus at Janelia Farm in Ashburn, Virginia (at least $30 million annually); the Kavli Foundation in Oxnard, California, whose original efforts brought the project to the White House’s attention ($4 million annually for ten years); and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, which has committed $28 million.


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    John Balter said:

    I am very happy that Obama is finally doing this. The human brain is the most complex system ever – and the most exciting. This push from the president will definitely help us understand the potential, ability and pathways in the human brain.

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    Kuldip Sidhu said:

    Although 100 million dollars allocated to the brain mapping project is at the lower end of expected spectrum (was approx 4 billion dollars), but nevertheless very significant initiative. This will promote private investments and thus bring in focus this subject to unravel the mysteries of human brain both under normal and pathological conditions. Both the in vitro and in vivo brain models would be required to construct the brain maps in totality for exploiting their therapeutics potentials particularly for brain diseases for which there is no cure so far such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. The real challenge now would be to make realistic road maps for research and development in this area involving all the key players not only the cherry picks.
    A/Prof Kuldip Sidhu
    UNSW Medicine

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