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President Obama Announces BRAIN Initiative

Andrew S. Wiecek

After weeks of speculation, President Obama has announced his plans for an initiative to develop technology that can map the activity of the human brain. So what details did he offer?

President Barack Obama has proposed $100 million in funding during 2014 for a research initiative that will develop technologies to map human brain activity in unprecedented detail.

After months of speculation, President Obama has announced his plans for an initiative to develop technology that can map the activity of the human brain. Source: White House

At a White House press conference on Tuesday morning, the President officially announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, otherwise known as the BRAIN Initiative, which he briefly mentioned during his State of Union address earlier this year. The funding for the project will be included in the President’s 2014 budget request that he will submit to Congress next week.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away; we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” said President Obama. He believes that the BRAIN initiative will change that by “giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action.” With such tools, researchers can better understand how neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease affect brain function.

The funding for the project will be split between three federal science agencies, namely the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Additional funding will come from private companies, foundations, and research institutes. For example, the Allen Institute for Brain Science plans to spend $60 million a year on projects related to this initiative, according to the White House.

Following the State of the Union address, the New York Times reported in February that the administration was planning a decade-long project to map human brain activity. Those initial reports were met with criticism by scientists who questioned not only the scientific merits of the project but also the detrimental effects that funding such a large initiative could have on smaller basic research projects and grant availability.

How government agencies such as the NIH and NSF spend their funding has become an increasingly contentious issue over the past few years as flat budgets and inflation have chipped away at support for basic research. And recently, the sequester has made this argument all the more heated by reducing science agency budgets, leaving many to question whether the timing is right to launch such a costly initiative.

“The reality is that we can’t afford not to,” said NIH director Francis Collins, who introduced President Obama at the White House press conference. “The worst thing that we could do is to stifle innovative research. It’s that innovation that holds immense potential.”

But the criticism might have been enough for the White House to scale back from a long-term commitment and to focus instead on a one-year, initial phase for the project.

In addition, the goal of the project is not a high-resolution map of human brain activity, as reported previously, but rather to develop tools that could help scientists map this activity. In an online article published last week, BioTechniques took a look at some of the promising neuroscience technologies that one day might be used to map the activity in the human brain.

In the end, the development of such high-throughput neurotechnologies might have a greater impact than a single brain activity map, just as the Human Genome Project’s biggest contribution to science is arguably the high-throughput sequencing technologies developed during that period.

In a follow-up press conference at the White House on Tuesday, Collins was asked whether the BRAIN Initiative could be this generation’s space race. “The race part worries me a bit,” said Collins who believes that international collaboration rather than competition will produce the best results. But that would be in contrast to the Human Genome Project, in which Collins and the NIH were locked in a race-to-the-finish with Craig Venter’s privately-funded human genome sequencing project.

For now, the President’s 2014 budget will be delivered to Capitol Hill next week where it will need to be approved by both houses of Congress.