Some still skeptical of BRAIN initiative as details remain fuzzy

On April 2, President Barack Obama rolled out the highly anticipated BRAIN initiative--short for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies--which has the lofty goal of mapping the human brain in hopes of finding new treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurological disorders.

Brain map--Courtesy of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Obama is proposing to allocate $100 million for the project, originally dubbed the Brain Activity Map, beginning in 2014--far less than the initial $300 million per year scientists said they hoped the project would receive when the New York Times first broke the story about the President's plans in February. Still, the administration is comparing the initiative to the likes of the Human Genome Project, which cost more than $3 billion in the 1990s.

For all its hype, though, administration officials haven't provided many details about the 10-year project. Three government agencies--the National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and National Science Foundation--would help fund the BRAIN initiative. From the private sector, The Allen Institute for Brain Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kavli Foundation and Salk Institute for Biological Studies have all pledged major contributions.

Some scientists have lauded the project. The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, the U.S. extension of the Munich, Germany-based Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, is one of many research institutions that have come out in support of the project.

"In the last five years, we've only just cracked open the door to technologies that make the impossible finally possible," said Dr. David Fitzpatrick, scientific director and CEO of the Max Planck Florida Institute and a former professor of neurobiology at the Duke University School of Medicine, in a statement. "You can't fix it if you don't know how it works. If we can't get to this detailed level of understanding of brain organization and activity, then we're not going to be in a position to effectively address brain disorders."

Other scientists are hesitant to praise BRAIN--like neuroscientist Erin McKiernan, who wrote an opinion piece for the U.K.'s The Guardian that raised concerns about the project. McKiernan is a researcher in experimental and computational neuroscience, as well as a professor of mathematics at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Xochitepec in Morelos, Mexico.

"I am skeptical about the success of any research project that does not have well-defined goals or plans for meeting its goals," McKiernan told FierceBiotechResearch. "Over the next year, the goals of BRAIN may become more defined as the planning committee meets and receives input from other scientists. But in my opinion, sound goals should have come before the announcement of a project or the awarding of funds."

McKiernan said she is also skeptical of the science behind the project. In previous papers, researchers have stated their desire to record every action potential from every neuron.

"Technologically, we are very far from being able to do this, especially in human brains," McKiernan said. And simply recording those electrical signals may not reveal the complex behaviors at work in diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

In a USA Today story, fruit-fly genetics expert Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, also criticized the initiative, saying, "I think there is a fundamental misreading of where innovation arises in science here. It doesn't come from centralized bureaucratic projects, but rather from individual labs."

Congress still has to approve the plan, which comes amid a tough political climate and across-the-board federal spending reductions known as sequestration.

Considering that the average brain contains about 100 billion neuron cells--or as many cells as there are stars in the Milky Way--the project, if approved by Congress, will certainly have its work cut out.

- get FierceBiotech's take
- here's the White House statement
- and the press release from Max Planck Florida Institute