Obama seeks $100m to unlock your BRAIN's secrets

Forward-thinking investment or government boondoggle? We report, you decide


The Obama administration has announced a major new effort to study what the president referred to as "the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

BRAIN Initiative infographic

Details of the White House's 'Grand Challenge'
(click to enlarge – substantially)

The private-public partnership, comprised of what Obama called "some of the smartest people in the country, some of the most imaginative and effective researchers in the country," will be known by the rather unfortunate backronym of BRAIN – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

BRAIN's goals were outlined in a joint statement by National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director Arati Prabhakar. "The Initiative promises to accelerate the invention of new technologies that will help researchers produce real-time pictures of complex neural circuits and visualize the rapid-fire interactions of cells that occur at the speed of thought," they explained.

From Obama's point of view, the purpose of BRAIN is to use the government's research and organizational abilities to jump-start a sagging economy "to create new jobs, to reignite a rising, thriving middle class by investing in one of our core strengths, and that's American innovation" – the general gist of the government's role as he outlined it in his February State of the Union address.

"When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does," he said on Tuesday when introducing the BRAIN initiative, "our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else."

From the NIH's perspective – as might be guessed – BRAIN's goal is more scientific than economic or political. "By accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies," that agency explained in its overview of the initiative, "researchers will be able to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space."

By doing so, the NIH contends, researchers will be able to investigate and possibly mitigate the causes of such brain dysfunction as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and traumatic brain injury – a tall order, to be sure, but one that would be greatly aided by the ability to map complex neurological interactions in real time, one of BRAIN's main goals.

The first step in the initiative will be to set up working group, co-chaired by Cori Bargmann of The Rockefeller University – a New York center for biomedical research – and William Newsome of Stanford, tasked with developing a multi-year plan "including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates."

The working group will solicit input from scientists, patient advocates, and the public, and produce an interim report by this fall that will suggest what the NIH describes as "specific recommendations on high priority investments for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014." A final report will be delivered to director Collins in June 2014.

Those cost estimates and FY 2014 "investments" may scuttle the entire project when they're dropped on the desk of the Majority Leader of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner (R-OH). In the tooth-and-nail combat of today's Washington DC, the Republican leadership takes a dim view of spending to boost government-sponsored research; they prefer anti-regulatory, anti-taxation measures that they argue encourage purely corporate research.

Obama disagrees. "Computer chips and GPS technology, the Internet – all these things grew out of government investments in basic research," he said. "And sometimes, in fact, some of the best products and services spin off completely from unintended research that nobody expected to have certain applications. Businesses then used that technology to create countless new jobs."

A significant amount of private funding for the BRAIN initiative has already been secured, including annual commitments of $60m from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, aided by a $300m investment from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and $40m from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, among others – so far.

Obama says that he'll include a $100m request for BRAIN funding in the budget that he will send to Congress next week. To put that number in a bit of perspective, the 2013 above-board, non-nuke, non-Afghanistan, basic budget request of the Department of Defense was $613.9bn (147-page PDF).

The amount that Obama will request from Boehner and his congressional cohort for comprehensive research of the three pounds of matter between our ears could be fully funded by about an hour and a half of the DoD's request. ®

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