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When It’s Brains, It Pours ($$$$$): Obama’s Big (Neuro) Science Project

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It was an anti-climax: the President of the United States clocking in after The New York Times had already spilled the beans about his big brain program, a centerpiece of the administration’s second-term, legacy-making efforts in the science arena. After the Times article, everyone had, for weeks, written, speculated, chewed over and made preparations for the Imminent Big Thing (an Apollo program or Human Genome Project of the Mind), to which an oblique but cryptic mention had popped out in Obama’s earlier State of the Union.

Tuesday’s announcement made supposition real with $100 million in funding—to be complemented by tens of millions more kicked in by non-government sources.  Obama on Monday talked about gaining deeper knowledge of those tissue-based central processing units as a next “grand challenge” of science, the same one, really, that had been there when George H.W. Bush declared “The Decade of the Brain” in 1990, and identical to what will be encountered by presidents 45, 54, 55, 61, pick a number.

Big Neuroscience as it takes form in BRAIN—the Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies—will be dedicated to tracing the workings of live neural circuits, a task currently hindered by instrumentation that can only look at small collections of brain cells or, at the opposite pole, scan large swathes of neural anatomy (slowly very slowly). The new tracking techniques would  capture, say, real-time traffic flows of neural signals between  the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia, a record of activity and interactivity of millions and sometimes billions of neurons. Understanding end-to-end circuit malfunctions may provide critical insights in unraveling some of the most debilitating non-infectious diseases that aren’t cancer: that means, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury, to name but a few.

My lovable but sometimes cantankerous friend and blogmate John Horgan has cast a jaundiced eye on this endeavor (just this one)? I fully get John’s take when he goes after particle physics—which has all the hallmarks of a science ready to pack up its tents after the Higgs grand finale. But BRAIN is different. It’s one of the most clever—and most cleverly (and justifiably) hyped—ways to promote a major undertaking in basic biological research. Despite the elaborate P.R. cloak, it is probably deserving of support by scientist and non-scientist alike. “Probably” only because many of the devilish details are still to come.

Why so great? The project is big science, but not too-big—or delusional.  It  is not a technophile’s wish to achieve eternal life by promising to transfer a volunteer’s brain into a computer, as some futurists like Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil desire. It is not trying to insert a full digital model of the human brain into a computer, the target of  The Human Brain Project. It envisages, rather, a Buddhist-like Middle Way in which tools can be built to map the large-scale ebb and flow of electrical and chemical signals traversing that three-pound, fissured lump underneath the skull—and it wants to do the same in the nervous systems of lesser organisms, knowledge that might furnish insight into human neuroanatomy.

The project organizers made the brilliant move of tapping Cornelia Bargmann, a Rockefeller University researcher, to head a working group that will define scientific goals. Bargmann is a great choice because she has voiced skepticism about mega-research projects and  understands the need to avoid having BRAIN become a money sink that drains funding from the rest of the field. A great quote from the great choice: “Creative science is bottom-up, not top-down,” Bargmann told Nature. “Are we talking about central planning inside the Beltway?” Empowering critics is adopted all too little as a strategy for managing big projects—apostasy of apostasies: big government may have some lessons for the private sector in this regard.

Okay, but here’s the hype part: this project is neither a Moon Shot nor a Human Genome Project. There will be no lunar one small step or a genomic three-billion nucleotides within the next four years. A pulsing, thalamo-cortical circuit from a mouse by 2016, if that’s even possible, may not result immediately in breakthroughs for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. The best that might be achieved may be one nano step for wormkind. As Christof Koch noted in a fascinating review in Science of Ray Kurzweil’s new book: “And even the lowly roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a creature no bigger than the letter l and with exactly 302 nerve cells, is for now beyond the ability of computational neuroscience to comprehend.”

Not everyone agrees with my pessimistic assessment. John Donoghue, a neuroscientist from Brown University involved in planning the BRAIN initiative, thinks that it’s conceivable that the type of circuit tracing work envisaged in this project might have a near-term payoff, perhaps in existing efforts to use electrical stimulation to enhance cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. “If we can accelerate that it would be a fantastic thing and have huge public health implications,” he says.

It doesn’t matter whether Donoghue is right—or I am. This project is a valuable undertaking, a splurge, though not an obscene one, on basic research in neuroscience. Even if it utterly fails in mapping real-time neural circuits in the human cerebral cortex, the various tools that emerge from nanotechnology and the like will be worth the price of admission. So it may not nail Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. But hype has been used before to sell science to the public. Really?

So what? Just go for it.

Image Source: Harvard University

Note: This article was updated.




Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sjfone 12:47 am 04/4/2013

    Jeepers, that’s almost the cost of a down payment on an NFL stadium.

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  2. 2. marclevesque 11:01 am 04/4/2013


    [ more on the BRAIN initiative : ]

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  3. 3. bigbopper 11:04 am 04/4/2013

    We are bound to learn something significant about the brain from this project, even if (worse case scenario which I doubt will transpire) it’s “only” that this approach to studying the brain is not useful. That in itself would be an important finding. The bottom line is that this is a very important problem deserving of our attention. It will lead to advances not only in our understanding of how the brain functions but also in the technology to study it.

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  4. 4. BrainBites 12:22 pm 04/4/2013

    This is potentially a great project that will spark the public imagination but also raises some questions. Some more info here:

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  5. 5. Dalton 6:52 pm 04/18/2013

    A $100 million bucks doesn’t go very far – 2 Robert Downy Jrs., but something may be better than nothing. As I understand it, it’s more than what began the human genome project. Having surveyed the multidisciplinary literature for a very long time now, I can see that much needs to be done in advance. Heck, the scientific community can’t even agree on definitions for things like consciousness. Terms overlap or diverge depending upon the disciplinary perspective of the researcher and reporter. There’s also a lot of validation of existing hypotheses and theories to be done as the project progresses.

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