3 min readPresident Obama Unveils New Brain Mapping Initiative

San Francisco, CA – President Barack Obama has unveiled a $100 million public-private initiative to map the brain to gain greater insight on how we think, learn and remember and to better understand and treat diseases ranging from autism to schizophrenia. [Video]

Calling the plan bold and audacious, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said BRAIN, an acronym for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, will bring together experts from industry, academia and federal agencies in neurotechnology, neurosciences and neurology to unlock the mysteries of the brain. The team will be led by Dr. Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann, a former UCSF professor who moved to Rockefeller University in 2004, and Dr. William Newsome, of Stanford University.

“We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet through the research that’s done in this BRAIN Initiative alone,” said President Obama. “But it’s going to require a serious effort, a sustained effort. And it’s going to require us as a country to embody and embrace that spirit of discovery that is what made America, America.”

The brain mapping project is the brainchild of six scientists, including two from UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, who proposed the effort in the June 2012 issue of Neuron.

“To succeed, the [project] needs two critical components: strong leadership from funding agencies and scientific administrators, and the recruitment of a large coalition of interdisciplinary scientists,” the scientists wrote. “We believe that neuroscience is ready for a large-scale functional mapping of the entire brain circuitry, and that such mapping will directly address the emergent level of function, shining much-needed light into the ‘impenetrable jungles’ of the brain.”

The brain initiative is expected to be modelled after the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project, a 13-year effort that generated nearly $800 billion in economic activity and uncovered a wealth of data now being used worldwide in biomedical research.

As of 2012, thousands of human genomes have been completely sequenced, and many more have been mapped at lower levels of resolution. Scientists expect the genomic studies will lead to new insights into many fields of biology and advances in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Like data from the Human Genome Project, data from the brain mapping initiative would inform both laboratory research and clinical care, and ultimately lead to better and more personal and predictive care. This emerging field, aimed at revolutionizing health care, is called precision medicine.
Dr. Philip Sabes, an associate professor of physiology at UCSF, explained the significance of this effort. “Our brains rely on complex circuits of many brain areas in order to accomplish even the simplest tasks. The goals of this project are critical for understanding how these different brain areas work together to create perception and behaviour, how these circuits fail in disease, and how we can repair them.”

Sabes said the brain mapping project consists of three main goals: “to develop techniques for recording or imaging large-scale patterns of activity in the brain, to develop new computational and theoretical tools to understand these patterns, and to develop tools for manipulating these activity patterns, both to causally test the models that emerge from the project and to repair dysfunctional brain circuits. These goals address the central outstanding challenges in systems neuroscience, and it is fantastic that the President is launching an initiative to accomplish them.”

Sabes’ lab is mapping neurons and neuron circuitry during movement with the hope that one day he will be able to print this information back into the brain. If feasible, such therapy could offer new hope to stroke victims whose brains are unable to recover on their own.

Six Scientists Pose Brain Mapping Challenge

The concept for the Brain Activity Mapping project began two years ago with a group of six scientists:  A. Paul Alivisatos; Miyoung Chun, George M. Church; Ralph J. Greenspan; Michael L. Roukes and Rafael Yuste. They published their concept in Neuron, “The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics”  in June 2012.

According to a white paper drafted by the authors of the 2012 Neuronarticle, “The ultimate goal of this project is to construct the functional connectome map of the human brain, by assembling a coordinated network of researchers deploying next-generation nanotechnological tools with unprecedented capabilities. Mapping the functional connectome will unravel the fundamental, long-sought paradigms of how the brain computes. Together with these new technologies, this will enable accurate diagnosing, and restoring, of normal patterns of activity to injured or diseased brains; will foster the development of broader biomedical and environmental applications; and will produce a host of associated economic benefits.”

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