Obama Launching Massive Initiative To Map The Human Brain

A coalition of scientists, with government funding starting at $100 million in 2014, will map brain circuitry in action.

Neurons

Patrick Hoesly on Flickr

We've been expecting this announcement since February, and today it looks like it's happening: President Obama has announced an ambitious plan to map the circuitry of the human brain. Kicking off with $100 million in 2014, a coalition of scientists will research ways to improve brain-related tech and sketch the interactions of brain cells.

A senior administration scientist told the New York Times that it's similar to the Human Genome Project, but the goals might be a little more nebulous: there's no specific endpoint, but with a map of the brain, scientists could better understand diseases of the brain and, maybe, find treatments.

But first they have to develop the technology to make it happen. The NIH will be working out the details--like goals and budgets--for the project. DARPA and the National Science Foundation will be involved with the project, too, while university scientists are also working on the initiative, called Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or just Brain.

In an online chat about the project, DARPA Head Arati Prabhakar explained that the military tech wing wanted in on the project to explore potential treatments for soldiers suffering psychological damage after returning from service.

NIH Director Francis Collins, meanwhile, assuaged fears that the project might cause "brain drain" by diverting money away from other projects. Collins said the project would only be funded by a small fraction of the NIH's funding, along with donations and investments from other institutes.

Collins also drove home comparisons to the Human Genome Project. Like that initiative, the data retrieved from the project, after being thoroughly tested, will become immediately available on the internet for other scientists to use. Also similarly, an ethics panel has been appointed that will work to determine the implications of the research.

The Times reports on both the enthusiasm and skepticism behind the project. On the one hand: Great! A nationally funded science project exploring an important topic we still don't completely understand. On the other hand: Should we be trying to make this happen before we have the technology to do it?

This is a long-term project, so we'll have to wait a while still to see who was right, and what discoveries come out of it.