BRAIN Initiative: Mapping the Human Brain Would Be a Triumph For Obama

Call it the Manhattan Project for the Mind. On Tuesday President Obama announced that he would propose a new scientific initiative with the goal of mapping the human brain. The initiative is proposed to start at $100 million for the next year, if Congress approves the spending.

The new initiative is to be called the "BRAIN Initiative." BRAIN stands for "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies" and is expected to be a large-scale science project on the scale of the Human Genome Project. The initiative is hoped to produce results for brain research on a similar level to what the Human Genome Project did for genetics research. Such polices are usually seen as excellent for scientific research, who often find it hard to gain a voice in the budget cut focused atmosphere of Capitol Hill. But are such big projects worth the cost while other more basic forms of scientific research go underfunded? 

Obama repeatedly made repeated references to the value and return on investment that the Human Genome Project achieved. Citing that the project had produced a $140 return on every $1 invested and achieved its results ahead of schedule, Obama clearly means for the BRAIN Initiative to be a flagship project for his administration. Dr. Rafael Yuste, a professor at Columbia University, said of the project:

"We think the Brain Activity Map will spur similar industrial activity and commercial opportunities will appear … We hope this will be a very good investment for the country and lead to the creation of many jobs."

The plan was actually reported back in February in the New York Times. Within the scientific community, there were those who were more skeptical of the initiative. Michael Eisen, a research biologist at Berkeley has criticized such big science projects after working on ENCODE, a huge "junk" DNA research project. And in light of cuts to the National Institute of Health forced by the sequester, Eisen had some sharp words on Twitter in wake of the first New York Times story:

Eisen did not step down in his criticism when the project was announced formally. He says that:

"The idea that science should be organized and funded in massive, centrally run projects that are organized by committees and bureaucrats in Washington rather than by individual scientists ... it just doesn't work."

Rather than the project being something with a clearly stated goal with a clear endpoint, such as the moon landing or the Human Genome Project, Eisen argues:

"If you listen to neuroscientists talk about this today, they don't even know what it means to understand the brain. This is not a moon shot."

This is one of the primary critiques of the project. While the Human Genome Project had a very definite and visible end goal, "mapping the human brain" is much less defined and actionable. The New York Times states that the BRAIN Initiative "is different, however, in that it has, as yet, no clearly defined goals or endpoint. Coming up with those goals will be up to the scientists involved and may take more than year."

"The underlying assumptions about 'mapping the entire brain' are very controversial," said Donald Stein, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta. He said changes in brain chemistry were "not likely to be able to be imaged by the current technologies that these people are proposing. I think the monies could be better spent by first figuring out what needs to be measured and then figuring out the most appropriate means to measure them. In my mind, the technology ought to follow the concepts rather than the other way around."

Proponents of the project argue that it would provide ongoing benefits in the battle against devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which affects one American every 68 seconds and is expected to cost the United States $203 billion in caring for those with the disease.

In the end, if the measure can get past Congress to receive funding, it will undoubtedly be a centerpiece of Obama’s science agenda for the rest of his presidency. Time will tell if it becomes the next paradigm-altering breakthrough or prove a scientific dud.