February 19, 2013
Project To Map Brain Activity Outlined By President Obama
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The US Human Genome Project (HGP) was a successful model of a public/private partnership that advanced the understanding of life at one of its most basic levels. Officially begun in 1990, the HGP was a 13-year effort headed up by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project--originally planned to take 15 years--was completed two years ahead of time, thanks in no small part to the rapid technological advances that accelerated the completion date to 2003.
The HGP always observed a dedication to transferring technology to the private sector. It was through the licensing of certain technologies to private companies, along with the awarding of grants for innovative research, that the government was able to catalyze the multi-billion dollar US biotechnology industry and foster the development of new medical applications.
Now in the pipeline is a new project with the possibility to launch us, scientifically speaking, to an area far more advanced than we are today. The Brain Activity Map, a ten year project, will seek to explore the deepest, innermost workings of the human brain. With an estimated cost in the billions of dollars, this new project is expected, according to scientists close to the proceedings, to be represented in President Barack Obama´s budget proposal, due next month.
We have seen an explosion of new technologies that have allowed scientists the opportunity to identify firing neurons in the brain. This advance in brain science has spurred numerous brain research projects worldwide. With all of this new research, however, the brain still remains a scientific secret.
Much like the HGP, the Brain Activity Map will be a collaborative research effort aimed at increasing our understanding of neurology and brain activity. As a result of this effort getting attention in the President´s budget, both federal agencies and private institutions will receive a sizable increase in funding. The potential applications for the study may apply to current research being done for Alzheimer´s disease and Parkinson´s treatment. Additionally, pathways toward expanding the development of artificial intelligence will be explored.
In his State of the Union address, delivered last week, President Obama hinted at a new study saying, “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy – every dollar,” he said. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer´s. They´re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”
Directly after the speech, Francis S. Collins, the director of the NIH, may have let the cat out of the bag when, in an apparent confirmation of the plan, tweeted, “Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU.”
Insiders report the administration has been looking to unveil the structure of the project as early as March of this year. In addition to both federal and private entities, the project will employ teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists. This collaborative effort will be aimed at advancing knowledge of the brain´s billions of neurons and at gaining a deeper insight into the ideas of perception, action and consciousness.
So it would seem the administration is not just hinting at this new endeavor. In fact, four scientists and representatives of research institutions have confirmed they have already been involved in planning the Brain Activity Map project. While the government has so far remained mum, the expectation is the project will be managed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with assistance provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NIH.
One important factor of the Brain Activity Map is determining whether or not there are computers strong enough to collect, store, and manipulate the sort and scale of data the Brain Activity Map project would require. Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm each sent representatives to a mid-January planning meeting to address this specific need of the project.
According to experts, the computer modeling necessary for the project does currently exist. The consensus, however, was that the actual technology for the gathering of data still needs work. They claim the current methods used for tracking brain activity are typically inaccurate or require highly invasive applications of probes. Among alternatives explored, the use of tiny, molecule-scale machines could be designed for the monitoring of individual brain cells. This method, though, may not soon be ready for practical application.
The President wasn´t the only person who seemed to tout the economic benefit this project could have on our economy.
George M. Church, a Harvard University molecular biologist who helped create the HGP, told the NY Times: “The Human Genome Project was on the order of $300 million a year for a decade. If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won´t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck.”
Church has confirmed he is currently helping to put together the Brain Activity Map project.
Other scientists also involved in the planning of the project stated they hoped federal financing would exceed the HGPs budget of $300 million a year. If the project wins Congressional approval, an estimated $3 billion would be required for the life of the 10 year project.
It would seem the long and winding road to garnering Presidential attention seems oddly similar to how the HGP evolved into federal policy.
“The genome project arguably began in 1984, where there were a dozen of us who were kind of independently moving in that direction but didn´t realize there were other people who were as weird as we were,” Dr. Church said.
It might seem this is where the similarities between the two projects end. According to a number of scientists, the mapping and understanding of the human brain will be far more intensive and challenging than was the mapping of the genome.
According to Dr. Ralph J. Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), “It´s different in that the nature of the question is a much more intricate question. It was very easy to define what the genome project´s goal was. In this case, we have a more difficult and fascinating question of what are brainwide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?”
The scientists already involved with this burgeoning endeavor are excited at the myriad potential outcomes of their research. First and foremost, they believe their study will yield a deeper understanding of and therapy for such diseases as schizophrenia and autism. Another plan they hope to enact is the implementation of a series of national brain “observatories”. These observatories would mimic our astronomical observatories. However, rather than exploring the vastness of outer space, their function would be to explore the boundless reaches of our inner space.
In addition to the aforementioned NIH, DARPA and the National Science Foundation, private foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle are expected to take an instrumental role in the project.
If ever there was one thing we could hold as certain, it is that nothing in Washington, DC is ever certain. And, as it relates to the Brain Activity Map project, details are far from finalized. Despite the knowledge that the HGP has returned nearly 30 times the initial investment back into our economy, what remains to be seen is whether or not our lawmakers, in this time of fiscal constraint, will find the political will to appropriate the necessary federal monies to this project. Without federal funding there is no way to know just how far the research would be able to progress.
Throughout our national history, we have made possible the impossible. We sent men into space and to stand on the faces of other celestial bodies. We have pioneered fields of health and disease research. We have learned, through the HGP, who we are at one of our most basic levels. Hopefully we can continue our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Hopefully we are ready to embark on the next final frontier.