Obama Kicks Off $100-Million Project to Study Brain Function

Alex Wong, Getty Images

Francis S. Collins (left), director of the National Institutes of Health, introduced President Obama on Tuesday at a White House announcement of details of a new $100-million brain-research project. "There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the Brain Initiative will change that," the president said.
April 02, 2013

President Obama on Tuesday outlined a $100-million project to study brain function, saying he hoped to help scientists gain fundamental understandings and tools that would lead to breakthroughs in treating conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, autism, and stroke.

The project, which Mr. Obama first described in February in his State of the Union address, will be known as Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or the Brain Initiative.

"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the Brain Initiative will change that," Mr. Obama told a White House assembly filled with researchers and leaders of public and private science agencies.

In the weeks since the State of the Union address, the fledgling idea attracted both plaudits and criticisms, with the latter centering on the plausibility of mapping the entire human brain and the wisdom of dedicating increasingly scarce federal dollars to single large-scale endeavors.

At the White House ceremony, the president tackled both by citing similar criticisms of the Human Genome Project, which cost $3.8-billion during the 1990s and ended up paying back the country an estimated economic benefit exceeding $800-billion.

"We have been a nation of dreamers and risk takers," Mr. Obama said. "People who see what nobody else sees sooner than anybody else sees it."

'An Avalanche Is Poised'

Mr. Obama further emphasized the connection by being introduced in the East Room by Francis S. Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, who led the genome project. Dr. Collins repeatedly described the new endeavor as an "ambitious project—some might even call it audacious," and yet appropriate for the current state of technology.

Behind the scenes, the Obama administration also shifted somewhat its approach to the project over the past two months. The original name, the Brain Activity Map project, was shelved, reflecting the recognition that "map" was a "bad analogy" for the project, said one of its leaders, Cornelia I. Bargmann, a professor of neuroscience at Rockefeller University.

Instead, said Story C. Landis, director of the NIH's National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the goal is to create a more active representation of the brain and its activities, akin to showing how information travels along neural pathways.

Ms. Bargmann, along with William T. Newsome, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, were named by Mr. Obama as the heads of a 15-member "dream team" of experts who will write the project's overall plan, timing, goals, and estimated costs.

Initially, at least, the project will be mostly about developing technology, Mr. Newsome said. The human brain consists of some 100 billion neurons that each react electrically when stimulated, passing along data. To deal with many of the questions they are trying to answer, scientists will need far better tools for measuring and recording those data, Mr. Newsome said.

Skeptics include Jeremy M. Berg, a former director of the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, now serving as associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning in health sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Even after removing the project's references to a "brain map," which seemed a poor description of the organ's dynamism, the project still runs the risk of limiting the NIH's research flexibility, Mr. Berg said.

A big brain-research project may give the NIH a "sexy story" for Congress at a time of limited budget resources, but encouraging lawmakers to restrict the use of money may end up hurting discovery in the long run, said Mr. Berg, a professor of computational and systems biology at Pitt.

Ms. Landis and Mr. Newsome said they both understood critics who suggest the NIH should be wary of devoting too many resources to large-scale projects. But the NIH already spends about $5.5-billion a year on neuroscience, mostly through smaller projects proposed by individual researchers, and Mr. Newsome said the scientists' need for breakthrough technologies and tools for studying the brain has become increasingly clear.

"It's like an avalanche is poised and ready to go because of the weight of snow that's built up over many years," he said, "and it needs just one more snowflake, or another dozen snowflakes, to actually tip it and cause it to come roaring downhill."

As an example, Ms. Landis said that one common treatment for numerous disorders—including Parkinson's, obsessive-compulsive disorder, intractable depression, dystonia, and essential tremor—involves the use of a probe that is virtually the size of a telephone pole in terms of its ability to stimulate a specific part of the brain. The method actually has benefits, but it could be so much more useful if doctors had a device that gave them real precision and feedback, she said.

Cross-Agency Cooperation

The NIH already runs other large-scale brain-research efforts such as the Human Connectome Project, which is trying to map the pathways in the brain where information travels, Ms. Landis said. But none of the existing projects looks at how information is processed through those wiring diagrams or circuits, she said. "We simply don't have the technology to do that in a way that would give you a real understanding," she said.

The Obama administration, in its budget recommendation next week to Congress for the 2014 fiscal year, plans to seek $100-million for a first year of planning the project. The money will come from the NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation. Additional support is expected from companies, foundations, and private research institutions. Administration officials declined to estimate appropriations for future years, though Dr. Collins said the $100-million request was almost four times the first-year allocation for the Human Genome Project.

The director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arati Prabhakar, joined Dr. Collins in a series of White House appearances on Tuesday to promote the Brain Initiative. She repeatedly offered hope for technologies that might help wounded soldiers regain healthy mental functioning after injuries.

Ms. Prabhakar made little direct mention of the Pentagon's using such advances in offensive military scenarios, and Mr. Newsome said that did not appear to be a priority for the Defense Department. Either way, Mr. Newsome said he was encouraged by Mr. Obama's pledge on Tuesday to ask his Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to fully review the project's plans.

In some ways, the need for a project to push cross-agency cooperation suggests a failing of current governmental structures for enabling multidisciplinary work, Mr. Newsome said. Governmental "systems' not being set up right is perhaps something to do with it," he said.

As for payback, it's not unrealistic to think the Brain Initiative could give the country a financial return on the scale of the Human Genome Project, said Simon J. Tripp, a senior director at the Battelle Memorial Institute, the private research and development company that produced the $800-billion estimate of genome-project benefits.

As with the genome project, the Brain Initiative seeks to advance both scientific knowledge and technology, Mr. Tripp said. That could lead to tools, sensors, informatics, and knowledge applications in both medicine and outside fields, including agriculture, forensic science, industrial biotechnology, and environmental sciences, he said. Computing advances could help in artificial intelligence, education, and training, Mr. Tripp said, and health advances could lower costs of health care and improve labor-productivity rates.

The Human Genome Project, he said, also generated "plenty of naysayers saying it can't be done—that the scope of the problem is simply too huge and the approach being taken is not going to work."