Tuesday, April 2, 2013

President Obama and Francis Collins announce BRAIN Initiative

I'll give CNN the honor of presenting the executive summary: Obama wants $100M for brain research.

Supporters say the president's plan will create jobs and help scientists better understand how the brain works.
Follow over the jump for the video of the announcement and news stories both pro and con.

Dr. Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, introduces the President in President Obama Speaks on the BRAIN Initiative and American Innovation.

President Obama unveils a bold new research initiative designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain, and discusses the importance of investing in American innovation to create jobs and strengthen our economy. April 2, 2013.
Having Dr. Collins on stage was a wise move, as he led the last big national science initiative, so he has credibility on helping run the next one and he leads the National Institutes of Health, which would administer the program in conjunction with the National Science Foundation.

As for President Obama, he framed his support for science as he always does, a way to maintain and increase American competitiveness. I think that's a good way to drum up support, although I'm just as happy to do something because it increases knowledge in general and is cool to boot. Just the same, resources are limited in an era where austerity and sustainability do battle as the dominant social and economic forces of the time, so cool is not enough.

Neither of the above videos explains how the proposal got the acronym BRAIN, but Reuters does in Obama launches research initiative to study human brain.
Called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the program will be funded with an initial $100 million from the president's fiscal 2014 budget, which the White House is slated to release next week.
The main thrust of the BRAIN Initiative "is to be able to study the brain at a large scale to see how lots of neurons work together to produce high-level functions like learning, memory and creativity," said neuroscientist John Donoghue of Brown University. Today's brain imaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, "can't see the activity of individual neurons," he said: "it's like reading the newspaper at two arms' length."

But by monitoring activity in individual neurons, researchers hope to see, for instance, "how the brain produces language, including how the visual cortex interacts with speech and language areas so you can read a word, speak it and understand it. It's a big network of neurons all communicating with each other," Donoghue said.

"But because we don't currently have the tools for this, the first step will be to develop them. That will involve, for instance, bringing in neuro-engineers to figure out how we can take advantage of advances in wireless technology" to place multiple probes in the brain to measure activity at the level of individual neurons, he said.
It turns out that researchers are working on the ability to monitor individual neurons already, as Peter Gwynne of LiveScience reports in Inside Science News Service via LiveScience: Laser Helps Measure Brain Activity
European researchers have developed a new tool for studying nerve cells in the brain. The implanted tool can simultaneously inject fluid into individual cells, shine light on them, and record their electrical activity.

The researchers demonstrated the value of the device, called an optrode, in experiments on mice. Laser pulses allowed them to influence the activity of nerve cells in the rodents' brains in a controlled manner.

"Proof of concept has been achieved," said Thomas Stieglitz, of the Laboratory for Biomedical Microtechnology at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
As for the outcome of the project, TechCrunch thinks that $100M BRAIN Initiative Could Open ‘The Next Frontier’ Or Be An Epic Fail. The initiative could do exactly what the President thinks it will do, return fantastic research results and gains to the economy...
Obama is partly basing BRAIN on the success of the Human Genome Project to map humanities DNA. “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said during the State of the Union.
...or it could be a big dud.
However, even one of the scientists working with the BRAIN project, Ralph J. Greenspan of the University of California, San Diego, admits that “It was very easy to define what the genome project’s goal was. In this case, we have a more difficult and fascinating question of what are brainwide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?”

The government has been the source of truly revolutionary science in the past, from the space race to the foundations of the Internet. Whether BRAIN is the “next frontier” of innovation or a spectacular failure depends on whether one believes that brain research needs a government kick in the pants.
John Horgan of Scientific American was even more skeptical in Do Big New Brain Projects Make Sense When We Don’t Even Know the “Neural Code”?
Does anyone still remember “The Decade of the Brain“? Youngsters don’t, but perhaps some of my fellow creaky, cranky science-lovers do. In 1990, the brash, fast-growing Society for Neuroscience convinced Congress to name the ’90s the Decade of the Brain. The goal, as President George Bush put it, was to boost public awareness of and support for research on the “three-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells” that serves as “the seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses and controller of movement.”

One opponent of this public-relations stunt was Torsten Wiesel, who won a Nobel Prize in 1981 for work on the neural basis of vision. When I interviewed him in 1998 for my book The Undiscovered Mind, he grumbled that the Decade of the Brain was “foolish.” Scientists “need at least a century, maybe even a millennium,” to understand the brain, Wiesel said. “We are at the very beginning of brain science.”

I recalled Wiesel’s irritable comments as I read about big new neuroscience initiatives in the U.S. and Europe. In January, the European Union announced it would sink more than $1 billion over the next decade into the Human Brain Project, an attempt to construct a massive computer simulation of the brain. The project, according to The New York Times, involves more than 150 institutions. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is reportedly planning to commit more than $3 billion to a similar project, called the Brain Activity Map.
The announcement was only for $100 million, but that's a down payment. The whole thing might easily end up being a $3 billion dollar project when all is said and done. If it succeeds, it will be money well spent. If not, it will still give us good results (as I tell my students, the data is the data, and it will tell you something, even if it only is that the hypothesis has been disproven), but it might have been better spent on something else. Only time will tell.

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