Talking back

Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

U.S. Big Brain Project Takes Next Big Step


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


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

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article