According to a White House press release, President Obama will follow through on his State of the Union call for a comprehensive map of the human brain by announcing $100 million in federal investments for the project on Tuesday morning. Funds for the project — dubbed the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative — will be appropriated through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and will be included in the FY 2014 budget that the president is set to release next week.
The project’s central component will be the Brain Activity Map, which seeks to “accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought” in an effort to “explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.” As President Obama explained during the State of the Union, such advancements could herald the key to unlocking pressing public health mysteries, including effective methods of curing brain injuries and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
That’s particularly significant in a time of rising dementia rates among Americans. A recent pair of studies released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concluded that a combination of factors — including an aging population, more targeted early diagnosis efforts, and the failure to discover a viable cure — led to a staggering 68 percent increase in Alzheimer’s mortality rates between 2000 and 2010. The associated health care costs of that rise in the disease were $200 billion in 2012 alone, including $140 billion to government insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. If the current trend holds, those costs could balloon to over $1 trillion by the year 2050.
However, whether or not the announced funding is sufficient for a project of this size and scope is an open question. The BRAIN Initiative is most often compared — including by the president himself — to the watershed Human Genome Project. But the initiative to map the genome was funded by the Department of Energy and NIH to the tune of $3.8 billion over the course of 13 years, leading the project to be completed two full years ahead of schedule and giving the federal government an $800 billion return on its investment. The planned $100 million in funding for the BRAIN initiative constitutes 1/38th that price tag, and comes during a time when congressional cuts to the federal budget have slashed research and development funding, which was already half of what it was in 1962 before the sequester went into effect. The initiative will also rely heavily on public-private partnerships through research universities and organizations such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
While there are several related projects already in the works — such as the the Human Connectome Project — they are unlikely to overlap much with the BRAIN Initiative, which is appreciably more ambitious and detailed in scope. But that doesn’t mean researchers can’t take away lessons from the ongoing efforts, which are still in preliminary stages. Although progress in the Human Connectome Project has led to groundbreaking methods of data collection associated with the human brain, as the New Yorker’s Gary Marcus pointed out earlier this month, “it is easier to collect massive amounts of data than to understand them.”