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Obama's Plan To Explore The Brain: A 'Most Audacious' Project

A colored 3-D MRI scan of the brain's white matter pathways traces connections between cells in the cerebrum and the brainstem.
Tom Barrick, Chris Clark, SGHMS
Science Source
A colored 3-D MRI scan of the brain's white matter pathways traces connections between cells in the cerebrum and the brainstem.

President Obama has announced an ambitious plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain.

In a speech Tuesday, Obama said he will ask Congress for $100 million in 2014 to "better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember." Other goals include finding new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative would accomplish this by developing tools that would allow researchers to monitor millions or even billions of individual neurons as they interact to form thoughts or create memories.

It's an amazingly ambitious idea, says Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. "To understand how the human brain works is about the most audacious scientific project you can imagine," he says. "It's the most complicated structure in the known universe."

The technologies that allow scientists to watch the brain at work are advancing with amazing speed, Collins says, so he thinks it's the right time to take a chance.

"Five years ago, this might have seemed out of reach," he says. "Five years from now it will seem like we waited too late to take advantage of the opportunity."

Collins was the federal scientist in charge of the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. But he says this initiative is a bit different because it won't be clear when the job is done.

People are remarkably similar genetically, so researchers can learn a lot about all people by looking at the genetic sequences of just a few, says David Van Essen of Washington University in St. Louis. But with human brains, he says, "the differences are vastly greater."

And trying to keep track of every one of the brain's nearly 100 billion neurons may be unrealistic, says Van Essen, who is also principle investigator of the Human Connectome Project, an NIH-funded effort to map connections in the human brain. But he says it is likely that researchers will be able to monitor smaller brains, like those found in fruit flies or mice.

Scientists involved in creating the BRAIN initiative say it could provide some really helpful research tools even if it falls short of some goals.

"What's going on in the brain is like a conversation between thousands of neurons all at once," says John Donoghue, director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science at Brown University. "So the tools we need are the ability to pick up many, many cells at the same time. And you have to pick them up so you can hear each conversation very clearly."

Five years ago, this might have seemed out of reach. Five years from now it will seem like we waited too late to take advantage of the opportunity.

Donoghue says the ability to do that would make a big difference in his own efforts to allow paralyzed people to control a robotic arm as if it were their own. "We know enough to get crude approximations," he says. "But if we really understood the brain's language, the brain's code, we could potentially recreate everything you do with your own arm."

The BRAIN initiative also could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease and perhaps new treatments, says Guy Eakin, vice president for scientific affairs at the BrightFocus Foundation, which supports research on Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma.

For example, Eakin says, some research indicates that Alzheimer's spreads from cell to cell in the brain, using the connections between cells. With a better understanding of those connections, he says, "perhaps we can identify interventions that would stop that spreading."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.