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U.S. Big Brain Project Takes Next Big Step

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

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The group of neuroscientists  that is advising the Obama administration’s Big Science brain project delivered to the NIH its final report on June 5 with a recommendation that $4.5  billion be spent through the 2025 federal fiscal year to develop a set of advanced technologies that will enhance understanding of how neural circuitry works.

If fully funded, the proposal for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies would  become the largest targeted brain science undertaking ever, even outscaling the Human Brain Project, a European Union endeavor with an  allocation of more than a billion euros that is being spent over 10 years. The project would consume about 5 percent of the NIH’s annual  funding for research related to the brain—and additional funding could be forthcoming from other agencies such as DARPA.

The NIH will award $40 million in grants for the brain initiative  by September and the Obama administration has proposed $100 million in funding for the coming funding year.

The group of neuroscientists advising the NIH delivered a report that identifies  the ambitious goal of furnishing within 10 years an analysis of circuit wiring diagrams of hundreds or  thousands of healthy and diseased human brains, though not at full molecular resolution. The project has set a goal of developing, faster, inexpensive tools that can trace out circuit diagrams at fine-scale resolution.

The brain initiative  is intended to push into practical use a set of technologies that exist as either drawings on the back of a napkin or graduate student projects. The report mentions the prospect, for instance, of using nano-scale diamond particles as detectors of electrical fields emitted from a neuron that would then fluoresce to report on the activity of the cell.

It is hoped that brain wiring diagrams will reveal patterns of neural activity that ultimately give insight into the underlying basis for sensory function, thought, memory and emotion—and will provide a new understanding of what in these circuits goes awry in psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases. At a news conference, Cori Bargmann, a co-chair of the advisory committee, tried to provide an economic rationale for the spending proposed:

“To use numbers,  the entire cost of the space program to put a man on the moon added up to about one six pack of beer for every person in America living at the time. And the entire cost of the Brain Initiative  proposed here adds up, inflation corrected, to about one six pack of beer for each American over the entire 12-years of the program.”

A justification for moving ahead could also be witnessed at a major academic meeting on cognition that took place through June 3 at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Neuroscientist Terence Sejnowski, an advisor to the brain initiative, gave the closing remarks. During his talk, he cited  a previous symposium at the research facility that he had been at in 1990. Back then, it was only possible to record from one neuron at a time, and to do so for one or  two neurons per day. Recording from a monkey’s brain could consume three or four years of a graduate student’s time. Electrodes and some dyes now enable recording from 100 or more neurons at a time and machine learning techniques can process the data.

The earlier meeting also had little theory that had any solid grounding in mathematics. Sejnowski mentioned a 1979 article from Scientific American in which Francis Crick, who had recently moved to the Salk Institute to begin neurobiology studies, had written on the need for allowing “all neurons of just one type to be inactivated, leaving the others more or less unaltered”—a futuristic musing that has been realized today with a technology called optogenetics. (Footnote: After the talk, James Watson, Crick’s one-time partner, approached Sejnowski  told him that he “was living in a dream world”—he also used more pungent language. Watson said that the the brain initiative was not dealing with issues of more practical medical relevance. In fact, the report to the NIH specifically emphasizes the need for basic research needed to develop techniques that will then help make progress with neurological and psychiatric diseases.)


Image Source: Kigsz/Wikimedia Commons

Note: Story has been 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. Wayne Williamson 6:35 pm 06/5/2014

    I think this is an important endeavor, but I swear they come up with cost by throwing something against a wall and see if it sticks.
    Lets see, 4.5 billion over 10 years is 450 million a year. Lets say that hardware/infrastructure was 50 percent of the cost. That leave 225 million in pay a year for what, a thousand people getting 225 thousand, or 2 thousand getting 122500 a year.
    Sorry, I just question the number of people involved, sounds like some top heavy endeavor.

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  2. 2. Damir Ibrisimovic 7:27 pm 06/5/2014

    Dear Gary,

    I can understand neuroscientists’ focus at the brain, but cannot justify the obvious absence of brain’s environment – culture.

    The culture is capable of maintaining much more “memories”, for example, than a single brain ever could. To a large degree, the culture “decides” (TV, newspapers, internet etc.) which stories will emerge in our limited (7±2) short-time memory of our consciousness – to think and talk about…

    Since the proposed project could complement European’s Human Brain Project – we could miss a golden opportunity to explore the cultural differences in neuronal activities. And, the cultural differences may give us some explanations – we could not derive from neuronal activities of the same-culture brains alone.

    Enjoy your day,
    Damir Ibrisimovic

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  3. 3. jayjacobus 1:02 pm 06/10/2014

    What are the anticipated results? They will have circuits drawn but will they have new controls, medicines, surgeries, therapies and cultures? The brain scientists may be better off but will anyone else?

    Presumably, the scientist involved made a proposal. I would like to see that.

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  4. 4. lmpereira 11:31 am 06/11/2014

    Here’s what I wrote on the European project:
    L. M. Pereira, Can we not Copy the Human Brain in the Computer?, pp. 118-126, in: “”, ISBN: 978-989-8380-15-9, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, 2014.

    Download from here:

    Link to this

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