On April 2, 2013,, President Barack Obama unveiled a 10 billion dollar research project called the BRAIN Initiative. BRAIN stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, which will “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. These technologies will open new doors 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.”
While some compare it to the human genome project, no one really thinks it is as finite a task as that. The brain is far too complex to be distilled down to a single map, tempting as that might be. As the President noted, “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.”
Like the genome project, BRAIN is one of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s “Grand Challenges,” which are “ambitious goals on a national or global scale that capture the imagination and demand advances in innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology. Grand Challenges are an important element of President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation.” Here are just 10 things the BRAIN Initiative hopes to accomplish:
- Advance imaging technologies that can produce real-time pictures of neural circuits in the brain at work – outline the science of perception.
- Increase understanding of how thoughts, emotions, actions and memories are represented in the brain.
- Help uncover the root causes of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and autism.
- Develop better treatments for injured brains – traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, and memory loss.
- Improve the technological ability to collect, sort, search and analyze the vast amounts of data needed for advanced brain research.
- Create jobs and educational opportunities for people interested in STEM.
- Establish an ethical context for the questions and answers that are key to targeting research: are we asking the right questions and what should we do with the answers?
- Forge public-private partnerships to establish new and consistent revenue streams for research.
- Nurture private entrepreneurship in new technologies that solve real-world problems.
- Inspire STEM students and professionals to create and explore new frontiers of knowledge, much as space exploration did in the 20th century.
If you had to draw a map of the human brain, what would it look like? What would you want it to tell you? Tell us what you think!