WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama has launched a scientific research initiative aimed at demystifying the workings of the human brain.
The president described the human brain as one of the great frontiers of human discovery.
“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, study particles smaller than an atom, but we still have not unlocked the mystery of the three pounds [1.5 kilos] of matter that sits between our ears,” he said.
Speaking at the White House, Obama said he will propose $100 million for research to unlock the mystery. The funds are to go to the nation’s leading research institutions for collaboration with private companies and charitable foundations.
The project aims to understand how the interactions among the billions of neurons in the human brain form our thoughts, memories and movements. The benefits could reach billions of people worldwide.
“Imagine if no family had to feel helpless watching a loved one disappear behind the mask of Parkinson’s, or struggle in the grip of epilepsy. Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home. What if computers could respond to our thoughts, or language barriers could come tumbling down?” said Obama.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said a “dream team” of top minds in brain research will lay out the project’s priorities.
Unraveling the hugely complex network of billions of neural connections and their function will require tools and technology that do not yet exist. But Collins said their development may itself produce benefits.
“People are quite excited about what we can learn about how the brain does what it does, which may teach us new kinds of architectures that can be the next design principle for the computers of the future. So, the computers are going to serve us by analyzing and storing the data, but we may also maybe make them obsolete by figuring out new ways to design better ones,” said Collins.
The opportunity for innovation is at the heart of the brain-mapping initiative. With budget-slashing the order of the day in Washington, the president says the program is a wise investment in America’s future. He said each dollar spent on sequencing the human genome returned $140 to the economy, and he expects this project will have similar benefit.
“We cannot afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead," said Obama. "We have to seize them. I do not want the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or Germany. I want them to happen right here. And that is part of what this BRAIN Initiative is about.”
Support for the initiative is not unanimous among researchers. Some skeptics say rather than focusing on a core set of issues, scientists should pursue a broad research agenda and follow where it leads.
Collins said it is the right idea, though, to think big.
“There is nothing like a project of this sort to inspire people to go to that next level. And we hope that we will recruit into this effort some of the best and brightest, all kinds of bright brains that might otherwise have done something else, to come and solve those problems,” he said.
Researchers say the initiative is not likely to produce immediate cures for diseases. Much of the research likely will focus first on animal studies, before moving on to humans.