President Barack Obama’s public-private initiative to create an activity map of the human brain will cost more than $3 billion, projections say, or $300 million annually for 10 years. The project has multiple private and public institutions lined up to participate, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation. All parties hope that the initiative will move brain science forward with the same kind of money and focused effort that drove the Genome Project.
“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy—every dollar,” the president commented. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”
George M. Church, Ph.D., professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of PersonalGenomes.org, said he was helping to plan the Brain Activity Map project.
“If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won’t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck,” he commented in The New York Times.
The proposal for the project came from six scientists, among them Dr. Church, who said in the journal Neuron, “We propose launching a large-scale, international public effort, the Brain Activity Map project (BAM), aimed at reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits. This technological challenge could prove to be an invaluable step toward understanding fundamental and pathological brain processes.”
The collective idea for the initiative was generated at a meeting of neuroscientists and nanoscientists convened in September 2011 at the Kavli Royal Society International, U.K., organized by Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and Miyoung Chun, Ph.D., vp of science programs at the Kavli Foundation in Oxnard, California.
The Kavli institute has founded institutes for brain science at UC San Diego, Yale, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Meeting attendees articulated the issues the BAM will address in its report, mentioning “our persistent ignorance of the brain’s microcircuitry—the minute and multitudinous connections contained within,” and citing the great brain scientist Ramon y Cajal’s 1923 quote that refers to the interconnected, intermixed, and dynamical network of different cell types as “impenetrable jungles where many investigators have lost themselves.”
“Another equally fundamental shortcoming,” they noted, “is our inability to monitor network interactions and coordinated brain activities densely, and to do so simultaneously across extended regions of the brain, and with sufficient temporal and spatial resolution.”
And most scientists, whether proponents or opponents of the big science approach to brain mapping, agree that its biggest challenge is the need to develop novel tools to study the brain.