Update, April 2: President Obama today formally announced the Brain Activity Map, aka the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which will launch in 2014 with $100 million in funding.
"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," Obama said in a speech at the White House. "So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be — will be — transformative."
The human brain, having become increasingly self-aware in recent generations, is now on the verge of understanding itself more deeply and thoroughly than ever before.
President Obama's administration is reportedly planning a new endeavor to map human brain activity, hoping to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genetics. According to the New York Times, which first reported the story, Obama plans to announce the Brain Activity Map project in next month's federal budget proposal.
The project could transform the already explosive field of brain research, offering scientists unprecedented information about how a wrinkly bundle of 100 billion neurons can produce the entirety of a person's mind. It will likely include not just federal agencies, the Times reports, but also private foundations and teams of researchers, all working toward an array of goals ranging from treating Alzheimer's to developing advanced artificial intelligence.
Although not yet officially announced, the project is already making waves. Obama may have foreshadowed it in last week's State of the Union address by mentioning the economic importance of brain research.
The NIH is already working on a large-scale brain study, the Human Connectome Project, that was launched in 2009 to "provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data, an interface to graphically navigate this data and the opportunity to achieve never-before-realized conclusions about the living human brain." But while the HCP focuses on anatomy and connective structure, the Brain Activity Map would be "a new project to map the active human brain," one high-ranking NIH official tells the Times.
Scientists have long been clamoring for such a project, and a paper published last year in the journal Neuron called for it specifically. "[W]e propose launching a large-scale, international public effort, the Brain Activity Map Project, aimed at reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits," wrote a team of neuroscientists from across the U.S. "This technological challenge could prove to be an invaluable step toward understanding fundamental and pathological brain processes."
Efforts to map brain activity have historically been limited by logistical hurdles, forcing researchers to focus on small clusters of neurons, often using invasive physical sensors. But as the Times reports, emerging technologies promise new, less cumbersome ways to watch our brains in action. Fleets of nanorobots, for example, could sense neural activity at the cellular level, using synthetic DNA as a medium for recording hordes of data.
The Brain Activity Map would be a daunting task, even with such futuristic technologies and a decade-long time frame. It involves a broader and more nebulous challenge than mapping our genome — not to mention the philosophical complexity of tricking our brains into spilling their own secrets. No official cost estimate has been released, but experts tell the Times they hope it gets around $300 million in annual federal funding, which would total at least $3 billion over 10 years.
Nonetheless, the project has an apt role model in the Human Genome Project, both scientifically and economically. Not only has the HGP revealed a torrent of eye-opening genetic data since 1990, but the $3.8 billion effort has yielded an estimated return on investment of $800 billion. If that kind of payoff can be replicated by the Brain Activity Map, studying human intelligence may turn out to be a surprisingly smart investment.
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