July 12, 2016
Obama Administration Unveils the Brain Activity Map Project
The prayers and demands of the masses affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have been heard with the announcement that the Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and construct a comprehensive map of its activity, ultimately striving to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.
The project could be unveiled as early as March and will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a collaborative effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons to gain greater insights into perception, actions and ultimately, consciousness.
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Scientists see it as a means to develop the technology required to understand diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, in addition to discovering new therapies for a slew of mental illnesses. Furthermore, the project holds the potential for navigating major advances in artificial intelligence
Expected to be included in the president’s budget proposal next month, the project is likely to cost billions of dollars. Four scientists and representatives of research institutions said they were involved in planning what is being named the Brain Activity Map project.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government should “invest in the best ideas.”
“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said. “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.”
If successful, the initiative could provide a needed lift for the economy. “The Human Genome Project was on the order of about $300 million a year for a decade,” said George M. Church, a Harvard University molecular biologist who helped create that project and said he was helping to plan the Brain Activity Map project.
“If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won’t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck,” Church said.
Scientists involved in the planning said they hoped that federal financing for the project would be more than $300 million a year, which if approved by Congress would amount to at least $3 billion over the next 10 years.
Beginning in 1990, the Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion with the goal of mapping the complete human genome, or all the genes in human DNA. In 2003 it achieved its goal ahead of schedule. A federal government study of the impact of the project later revealed that it returned $800 billion by 2010.
Despite new technologies allowing scientists to identify firing neurons in the brains and the resulting brain research projects around the world, the brain remains on the of the greatest scientific mysteries.
Composed of roughly 100 billion neurons that each electrically “spike” in response to outside stimuli, as well as in vast ensembles based on conscious and unconscious activity, the human brain is so complex that scientists are yet to find a way to record the activity of more than a finite number of neurons at once, and in most instances that is accomplished invasively with physical probes.
However, a group of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists say they believe that technologies will enable the a less intrusive observation and more advanced understanding of the brain.
One new approach for mapping the brain was published in the June journal Neuron which proposes to build a complete model map of brain activity by creating fleets of molecule-size machines to noninvasively act as sensors to measure and store brain activity at the cellular level. The proposal envisions using synthetic DNA as a storage mechanism for brain activity.
“Not least, we might expect novel understanding and therapies for diseases such as schizophrenia and autism,” wrote the scientists, who include Dr. Church; Ralph J. Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego; A. Paul Alivisatos, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Miyoung Chun, a molecular geneticist who is the vice president for science programs at the Kavli Foundation; Michael L. Roukes, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology; and Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.
The initiative will be organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to scientists who have participated in planning meetings.
The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will also participate in the project, the scientists said, as will private foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
A meeting held on Jan. 17 at the California Institute of Technology was attended by the three government agencies, as well as neuroscientists, nanoscientists and representatives from Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm. According to a summary of the meeting, it was held to determine whether computing facilities existed to capture and analyze the vast amounts of data that would come from the project. The scientists and technologists concluded that they did.
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They also said that a series of national brain “observatories” should be created as part of the project, like astronomical observatories.
This is the collaborative and full-fledged effort that the masses affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have been demanding for.