On Tuesday, April 2, President Obama announced:
The BRAIN initiative — short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — is modeled after the Human Genome Project, in which the federal government partnered with philanthropies and scientific entrepreneurs to identify and characterize the nearly 25,000 genes that make up human DNA.
"A human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections," Obama said Tuesday as he outlined the initiative in the East Room of the White House. In the absence of a detailed map of the brain's complex circuitry and operating instructions that could help troubleshoot when the brain's wiring goes awry, scientists often grope in the dark for therapies that can treat Alzheimer's or autism or to reverse the effects of a stroke, Obama said. "So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked."
I've received a few inquiries about the announcement - this is my field, and it is of great interest to me, but there are many specifics I really can't discuss due to confidentiality and conflict of interest. However, I will say that this is a great concept and I really want to see this carried out.
"But haven't we already done this? What about the 'Decade of the Brain'?"
The 1990's were indeed the 'Decade of the Brain' promoting advances in science and medicine related to the brain. Research funded during that period is responsible for current surgical and medicinal for many brain diseases. The essential work to develop neurally-activated prosthetics was greatly advanced during that period, as was the science behind Deep Brain Stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), magnetoencephalography and my own work in neural prosthetics.
However, much as the Human Genome Project decoded the 'language' of genes, the greatest need to both continue the advances in brain science, and essentially transform them from theory to knowledge is an understanding of the 'language' of the brain. In essence, finding all of the codes that the brain uses to represent different types of information. We have a pretty good start on this: we understand the coding of sensory inputs - how sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are represented in the primary sensory cortex. We also understand how the brain signals muscles to move, so that we have the basic input and output codes.
What we don't have is all of the internal coding. What constitutes the neural code for understanding of written words? ...the sense of comfort we receive from loved ones? ...the wonder of an enjoyable book or movie? ... of dreams?
The language of the brain - a map of not just anatomy, not just connections - but of knowledge and information. The BRAIN initiative will combine new funding and existing projects (hence why I can't speak except in generalities). The uncertainties come from continuing the funding in years to come - the commitments are only for this year, and the sum of $300 million-or-so dollars may not go very far when it comes to mapping hundreds of billions of neurons and tens or hundreds of trillions of connections.
But we have to try. We have made great progress - this is a way to make even more.