IN THE 4th century B.C., Aristotle argued that what separates humans from animals is our unique ability to reason. Some 2,300 years later, our best thinkers can tell us relatively little about how that reasoning takes place — how the brain operates normally, or what’s happening when it behaves irregularly. President Obama announced this week that he wants to change that.
The president proposed a down payment of $100 million to begin mapping the brain. In a video conference this week, National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins described a wide-open field of research with the possibility of practical applications across a variety of neurological illnesses and injuries: autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will participate, in part because of its interest in traumatic brain injury and advanced prosthetics.
Right now, Dr. Collins noted, scientists can track the activity of only a small number of neurons at a time. One possible avenue of research is developing technologies that can observe thousands of neurons simultaneously, even hundreds of thousands. Dr. Collins said that mapping changes in the brain through time — as it operates, rather than just in snapshots — is a particularly exciting prospect. Knowing how a healthy brain functions could provide a basis for comparison. That could lead to better understanding of the underlying causes of illness and, eventually, to better treatments.
Mr. Obama’s plan makes sense for several reasons. The federal government should invest in basic scientific research because private enterprise often won’t take the risk. Dr. Collins argued that new technologies here and on the horizon make this a good time to push harder on neurological research. Investing in research that has a variety of possible applications makes it more attractive than one more promise to cure a single disease.
In addition, America is aging. A studypublished Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dementia afflicts 4.1 million Americans, costing $157 billion to $215 billion a year to treat, a price tag that will more than double by 2040. Too, large numbers of veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental wounds.
There are questions. Unlike with the moon shot and the Human Genome Project, it is not clear what the goal is — what does it mean to map the brain? — and how to get there. How will scientists gather the data on the mind’s 86 billion or so neurons, how will they sort the information they get and what will the result look like when they’re done? And it’s not as though no one has been investing in brain research until now, so why is Mr. Obama’s $100 million critical?
The president’s plan, reasonably, doesn’t pretend to answer all of these questions; it starts with an expert panel mapping out the brain-mapping program. Its members, Dr. Collins said, will determine the program’s aims and timetable — how much should the initiative focus, say, on developing brain-scanning technologies or on mapping simpler neurological systems, such as those of worms or fruit flies, before taking on the whole human brain, and when should the public expect results? The panel mustn’t forget to explain why their research design is more worthy than others of taxpayer investment.