Obama's $100 million brain mapping project

It's a nebulous endeavor with no obvious milestones or endpoint. But if it works, a brain map could lead to cures for conditions ranging from Alzheimer's to PTSD.

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an ambitious plan to map the circuitry of the human brain. Called Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or just BRAIN), the initiative kicks off with $100 million in 2014.

Unlike the Human Genome Project, or efforts to put a man on the moon, the mapping of the human brain is a nebulous endeavor, with no obvious milestones along the way and no specific endpoint.

However, with a map of the brain, scientists might finally understand diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and PTSD. And, maybe, find treatments. Collectively, these brain conditions affect 100 million Americans and cost $500 billion a year.

But first, the technology needs to be developed. Today’s brain imaging can’t see the activity of individual neurons; current technology would take years to map the 10,000 synapses that branch from a single neuron.

Here’s where support comes from, according to the president's fiscal 2014 budget:

  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to explore treatments for soldiers suffering psychological damage after returning from service. $50 million.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH) will assemble a team of 15 scientists to set budgets and specific goals for research. They want to learn the language of how the brain operates. Approximately $40 million.
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) will support basic research. Approximately $20 million.

Private institutions investing in research that'll advance the BRAIN Initiative include: Allen Institute for Brain Science ($60 million annually), Howard Hughes Medical Institute ($30 million annually), Salk Institute for Biological Studies ($28 million), and Kavli Foundation ($4 million dollars annually over 10 years).

Initial winners, Reuters reports, will likely be information and communication technology companies, as well as drug companies.

But because it could cost billions of dollars over several decades to build a comprehensive brain map, long-term funding could be a challenge, WSJ explains. Washington's strained politics and tight finances may make it difficult.

[Via WSJ, Reuters, NYT]

Image: BRAIN Initiative

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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