Brain Mapping Initiative Projected to Spur New Research and Technologies

On April 2, 2013, the Obama administration announced a new research initiative to invent and refine new technologies to understand the human brain. Funding of $100 million is planned for 2014.The initiative is being compared to the Human Genome Project in scope because the initiative intends to record and map neural pathways in action to “show how millions of brain cells interact.” The project grew out of an interdisciplinary meeting of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in London in 2011.

Officially known as the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), the hope is that the project would lead to progress in treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injuries. The funding is expected to assist the researchers in understanding how the brain is operating.With insight into how these conditions affect the brain, researchers believe that they can develop ways to intervene and possibly eliminate those effects. The major difference between the Human Genome Project and BRAIN is that the latter has no defined goals or endpoint. These goals or endpoint will have to be defined by researchers throughout the lifetime of the project. The project will involve research scientists and other health professionals from private industry; in addition, three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. Called the Brain Activity map project by researchers involved in its promotion, BRAIN will require the development of new tools not yet available to neuroscientists. New technology would need to be developed to record thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurons at once. In turn, new theoretical approaches, new mathematics and new computer science would be needed to process and analyze the amount of data that will be garnered. President Obama has stated that studies of the ethical implications of any advances would be needed.

While met with interest, concerns have been expressed that BRAIN overemphasizes technology development over the development and understanding of the concepts involved. Instead, the technology drives the research. Supporters of the project note that having a brain map first, instead, would spur maturation of nanotechnologies to assist in further research.

Although the funding for BRAIN is not projected to be as high as the Human Genome Project, supporters believe any monies would spur new rounds of research in neuroscience. With the announcement, some universities have expressed interest in augmenting facilities and faculty to benefit from the federal funding. Additionally, industry would be incentivized to add research monies to develop a better understanding of the brain.