Obama’s Hope for the Future of the Brain

New research program aims to unlock the mysteries of consciousness itself.

By Imogen G. Whittaker-Cumming, Staff Writer

Photo by Shelbi Noble

Photo by Shelbi Noble

On April 2, United States President Barack Obama proposed the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies program, or BRAIN. BRAIN is a research initiative that, if passed by congress, will launch in 2014 with $100 million in support from federal, public and private institutions. The program is expected to yield economic as well as scientific benefits.

What technological advancements lie in the future if Obama’s initiative is successful? The program guidelines, milestones and hypotheses are as yet largely unidentified. But Obama and his neuroscience “dream team” led by Dr. Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University assert that this could be a giant leap in our understanding of the world’s most sophisticated computer, the human brain. BRAIN researchers will map the brain’s roughly 100 billion neurons and how signals pass through the trillions of complex pathways between neurons.

Although scientists can already observe a single neuron, they have not been able to examine how neurons interact at the speed of thought. [pullquote]As National Institute of Health director Francis Collins says, “Taking your laptop and prying the top off and staring at the parts inside, you’d be able to say, yeah, this is connected to that, but you wouldn’t know how it worked.”[/pullquote]

What if we did know how the brain worked? The most direct and obvious benefits would be breakthroughs in our comprehension of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and disorders such as schizophrenia. These findings could help sophisticate prosthetic limbs. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is contributing $50 million to BRAIN, intends to use the project’s discoveries to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses for injured soldiers.

Further possible neuroscience advancements will also affect people’s day-to-day functioning in terms of understanding why and how we make decisions and alleviating anxiety. Neuroscientists have analogized the brain as a river, claiming that a river reacts to the shape of the riverbed and also carves it. If our brains’ firing neurons have shaped our behaviours, then making new connections between neurons is possible, leading to new behaviours.

BRAIN could also economically benefit the United States. In a statement from the White House, Obama reminded the world that the Human Genome Project, which cost over $3 billion over 10 years, returned $140 to the U.S. economy for every $1 spent.

How will this program affect the hotbed of neuroscience research here in Canada? Jeff Chisholm, the director of research and design at a neuroscience start-up in Toronto, told us that the BRAIN proposal is exciting for their company “because it shows a trend; it creates agreement” around the importance of neuroscience research. “When the United States President says we’re going to put a man on the moon, it can be a sort of rallying call to bring people together. So it may be more significant as a symbolic announcement rather than a policy announcement,” Chisholm commented.

In the 1960s, U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s space program united medical researchers, engineers, machinists, and factory workers together in the pursuit of a common goal. Likewise, in the BRAIN program, “there will be materials engineers, there will be technicians, physicists, and at some point, there will be astronomical amounts of data and then they’ll need informatics, computer scientists, artificial intelligence, programmers, modellers,” Chisholm asserts.

Sceptics say the program is too vague or may detract from private research efforts. After all, there remain many more questions than answers concerning scientists studying how neurons give human beings consciousness.

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