Obama outlines human brain-mapping initiative

President Obama unveiled on Tuesday a $100 million proposal for a new project to map the human brain in hopes of finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and to reverse the effect of traumatic brain injuries. (The Washington Post)

President Obama on Tuesday outlined a government-sponsored initiative to map the human brain, casting the proposal as a way to discover new cures for neurological disease and strengthen the economy.

“Ideas are what power our economy,” Obama said as he announced the proposal from the East Room of the White House. “When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.”

The project would use about $100 million in federal money over the next fiscal year to begin a long-term effort to better understand the brain. Those funds will be included in Obama’s budget proposal, scheduled for release next week, and would be combined with annual private-sector investments of roughly an equal amount.

Obama has spoken frequently during his presidency, including in his most recent State of the Union address, about using federal money in partnership with academia and business to foster projects with broader economic and social benefits. And the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative represents one of Obama’s most ambitious efforts to do so.

But the federal funding he has proposed would probably represent only seed money for a project that could take more than a decade to complete, as was the case with the program to map the human genome, another collaboration between the federal government and the private sector.

Dr. Francis Collins says the $100 million initiative to understand the brain is a first step in scientific pursuit more challenging than the Human Genome Project. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Obama cited the computer chip and the Internet as projects that began with government help, and he named Alzheimer’s disease, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by American troops among the afflictions that could be better understood, if not cured, through this initiative.

“As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom,” Obama said. “But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

Obama’s proposal, and the budget it will be a part of, comes as the federal government struggles with the effects of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that started taking effect last month. On Tuesday, he again called for those cuts to be reversed, warning that they threaten to stifle innovation for a generation of young scientists.

The administration is expecting resistance to the initiative from a divided Congress. House Republicans already have proposed a spending plan that contains deep cuts and no additional taxes to bring the budget into balance over the next decade — and have asked Obama to do the same.

“This is exciting, important research, and it would be appropriate for the White House to re-prioritize existing research funding into these areas,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

At his daily briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the initiative would be “paid for” in Obama’s budget plan and noted that such proposals have received bipartisan support in the past.

“The potential here is enormous,” Carney said. “And the investment is relatively small compared to the potential.”

Much of the proposed federal money, about $40 million, would pass through the National Institutes of Health over the coming fiscal year.

At the same time, four nonprofit foundations have committed their own money to be partners in the program: the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

An additional $50 million would be allocated to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon department that pioneered the Internet.

Under the proposal, the National Science Foundation would receive about $20 million over the next fiscal year. Obama noted that Google began with help from a National Science Foundation grant.

According to the administration’s outline of the NSF element of the program, those funds would be directed toward research that explores the activity of neural networks, invests in the data-analysis projects needed to sift through the large volume of information that scientists expect to gather, and examines “how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain.”

“We can’t afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead,” Obama said. “We have to seize them.”

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