On April 2, following an earlier hint in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), with a proposed $100 million per year in public funding for "giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action." This initiative was catalyzed by a proposal for a "Brain Activity Map," floated last year by a group of six scientists, including Columbia's Rafael Yuste. While it is important to be realistic about the promise of the BRAIN Initiative, Obama's announcement was as refreshing for its potential benefits to neuroscience as for his enthusiastic endorsement of science overall.
Understanding the brain—"the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears," as Obama put it—remains one of today's foremost scientific challenges. The last 50 years of research have taught us a tremendous amount about how individual nerve cells and circuits fire, about how the firing in one cell may signal the presence of a particular face, while the firing in another cell may control where we turn our eyes. But we still lack crucial conceptual links to connect these patterns of neural activity in the brain with the cognitive realm of perception and behavior: How do we see and recognize a friend? Open and walk through a door? What makes a person depressed? Autistic?
In the history of neuroscience, such major conceptual leaps have typically followed the development of new tools. Developing tools is precisely the focus of the BRAIN Initiative. And the field is ready for it, with tools that are rapidly growing more sophisticated. For example, it is now possible to turn specific groups of cells in a mouse brain on and off with pulses of light, inducing specific behaviors like depression or autism. This gives us hope for understanding similar complex behaviors in humans. Such a targeted effort to develop neurotechnologies will be a powerful boost to the field overall.
It is important, however, not to oversell the BRAIN Initiative, and to be realistic about the timeframes involved. Here, we can look to the Human Genome Project, which will soon celebrate the 10th anniversary of its completion. On one level, the Human Genome Project has been an unequivocal scientific success. The full sequencing was completed ahead of schedule and spawned amazing technology, such as ultra-cheap sequencing machines. For certain types of cancer, it is now routine to tailor chemotherapy regimes to a genotype of the individual patient's tumor.
However, the Human Genome Project also brought a major surprise and a bit of a disappointment. It turns out that humans have very few distinct genes (about 21,000 protein-coding sequences, compared to about 20,000 such genes in the roundworm, or nematode). The real coding complexity lies in the interactions between multiple genes and with epigenetic material. So earlier hopes of the decoded genome leading to simple insights about risks for different diseases have been largely unmet.
Understanding brain function will likely be much more complex. Unlike the Human Genome Project, where the goal—identifying all the elements in the genome—was well defined, there is no such endpoint in brain research. Different questions will likely require descriptions of the brain at very different scales, making the BRAIN Initiative inherently more open-ended.
Finally, many in the scientific community have expressed fears that the BRAIN Initiative funding will get earmarked to a specific project, such as the earlier proposed BAM (of which many neuroscientists had been critical). But such fears are unfounded. The major step in the initiative so far has been the creation of an advisory body of neuroscientists, which has been charged with getting input and advice from the scientific community. The neuroscience community here at Columbia is, as one of the strongest anywhere, heavily involved, especially as the Mind Brain Behavior Institute becomes operational.
But why should we fund this initiative? In economic terms, the answer is clear: Each dollar invested by the government into the Human Genome Project returned an estimated $60 to $140 in this first decade of its completion, similar gains could be made by the BRAIN Initiative. Perhaps more important are the technological payoffs, which could be spectacular. A prosthetic arm fine enough to play the piano and strong enough to play basketball. Visual prostheses for those whose sight has been destroyed by macular degeneration. All these innovations and more await a better mastery of the brain.
So is Obama's BRAIN Initiative a good thing? Of course. And it should be embraced—enthusiastically, but mindfully.
Aniruddha Das is an associate professor of neuroscience and psychiatry in the Department of Neuroscience.
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