On Tuesday morning, as President Obama proposed $100-million initiative to study and ultimately map the human brain, he spoke glowingly of initiatives past and present, placing the government-funded effort dubbed Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) in the same echelon as the mapping of the human genome or the Apollo space program.
With the BRAIN initiative comes a renewed hope for cures to dehbilitating diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer’s, autism and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The intiative, which the President will include in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal, will send the lion’s share of federal dollars to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), reports the Post’s Scott Wilson. The highly-secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will receive $50 million, part of which is made possible by donations from four nonprofit foundations.
“Out of this is going to come a foundation for understanding the brain that we have dreamed of for all of human history and now it will happen,” says NIH Director Francis Collins in a video released by the White House. Collins, who stood alongsideObama during the announcement, served as the second director of the Human Genome Project after James Watson.
The grand initiative, however, raises a number of questions and concerns. TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein offers a reality check to the heady idea of achieving a complete map of the human brain, writing that the effort could succeed or “plain fizzle out,” given that the brain has petabytes of data processing capacity — in other words over a quadrillion bytes.
“I will be surprised if we were to conclude that this is doable with available technology. It requires development of new technology,”said Ajay Royyuru, Director of Computational Biology at IBM Research during a phone call Tuesday, “how do you watch this number and variety of neurons while they are actively working without actually disturbing them.”
“If you want to understand how the brain works, just gathering the data while you watch how the brain works is in itself a daunting IT challenge.”
But the challenge at the very least attracts the attention of scientists, engineers and technologists who may otherwise not have been paying attention.
Then there are those who find the President’s plan to be one the country desperately needs if only for what the private sector could stand to produce out of whatever findings result. Former Republican House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who announced a similar initiative during the 2012 presidential race, came out in support of the proposed undertaking, tweeting:
Obama's BRAIN initiative is important step in right direction.Brain research is vital for Alzheimer's,Autism & more gingrichproductions.com/2013/04/newt-g…— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) April 2, 2013
Post columnist and Singularity University Vice President of Innovation and Research, Vivek Wadhwa, had this to say about the President’s proposal:
“Just as the government’s investments in the Internet were critical to spurring the innovations and economic boom that followed, so is the investment in mapping the brain. This is the final frontier—territory that remains largely unexplored and uncharted.
I am usually critical of government efforts to spur innovation, because this is not the role of governments—only entrepreneurs and private industry can make this happen. But the government has a critical role in basic research—this is not usually cost justified for private business.
We won’t see any returns from this initiative for at least a decade. But when we do, it will be like the dot-com boom. There are no guarantees that specific cures will come from this, but it’s almost certain that we will see revolutions in medicine and learning. We may even find the roots of compassion.
I think that $100 million is nothing compared to what this will achieve. Private industry will make investments that are multiples of this amount and the benefits will eventually be in the trillions of dollars.”
But Obama has yet to deliver his budget proposal (including the BRAIN initiative) for the coming fiscal year, and government spending is still in the grip of the sequester. So, there’s plenty of time between now and when the first dollars get spent, assuming the federal dollars, at least, are approved by Congress.
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