Obama’s Brain Mapping Study: Decade-Long, Billion-Dollar Research to Launch in 2013

Mapping the Human Brain
The Brain Activity Map project will combine existing neuroimaging and computational analyses with new methods in search of a comprehensive account of brain function. By Liza Gross via Wikimedia Co

A massive decade-long scientific study backed by the Obama administration is poised to revolutionize neuroscience by building a comprehensive functional map of the human brain.

The New York Times announced on Monday that the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, which is likely to cost at least $3 billion over ten years, may be launched as early as March of this year.

President Obama hinted at this project in his State of the Union address last week.

"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy ... every dollar. Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's. They're developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation."

The human brain is incredibly complex, with a network of 100 billion neurons that function individually and in electrical and chemical networks in order to regulate bodily functions, respond to external stimuli and allow consciousness. Imaging technologies like fMRI have led to a greater understanding of overall brain architecture since the 1990s, but much of the brain's functioning can only be guessed at with currently available resources.

A full record of neural activity could lead to major advances in the understanding of fundamental brain processes and artificial intelligence, as well as treatments for prevalent pathological conditions like Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and autism.

A detailed plan for the study has not yet been publicly announced, but is likely to bring together a consortium including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), private foundations, and individual teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists.

The scope of the project is analogous to the Human Genome project, which officially launched in 1990 with support from the NIH and led to the complete sequencing of the human genome by 2003 - a landmark event that has advanced the field of genetics and continues to yield medical insights.

The Obama proposal is likely to combine existing technologies with at least some of the brain-mapping approaches put forth by six leading scientists in the journal Neuron in June 2012, which include synthetic DNA storage, large-scale electrical recordings with molecule-size nanosensors, wireless fiber-optic probes, and supercomputing facilities to synthesize and analyze the enormous amounts of resulting data.

The Brain Activity Map initiative will compete against ambitious projects that are currently underway, including the European Union's $1.34 billion Human Brain Project and DARPA and IBM's SyNAPSE project, which aim to build supercomputer simulations of a "brain" with billions of neurons.

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