UPDATED: Obama seeks revolutionary brain discoveries on a budget

President Barack Obama rolled out a highly anticipated brain mapping project today, providing details about the ambitious initiative to uncover mysteries about complex brain functions that could lead to new therapies for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurological diseases. While administration officials have compared the initiative to the Human Genome Project because of its size and scope, The New York Times reported, Obama wants to start the big science project with a modest $100 million spending plan for 2014 from NIH, DARPA and NSF budgets.  

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

Yet the project is expected to benefit from a quartet of private institutions including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Still, the $100 million figure pales in comparison to the initial $300 million annual budgets discussed when the Times broke the story about the President's plans in February. The administration is launching the massive endeavor among widespread budgetary duress in the sequester-stricken government. Scientists plan to hatch budget plans for future years of the so-called Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN project, which is expected to unite scientists from multiple disciplines as well as both public and private concerns.

The BRAIN project leaders also face the challenge of setting goals to channel the efforts of the crowd involved. The brain is the most complex organ in the body, and some scientists disagree on the most direct path to achieve true breakthroughs in neuroscience. The NIH has organized leading scientists including Cori Bargmann from Rockefeller University and William Newsome from Stanford to blueprint a plan for mapping the brain--on a budget, of course.

At a cost of some $3 billion, the Human Genome Project hit pay dirt about a decade ago and has touched off a wave of economic activity--though as of yet a dearth of disease cures--with new companies founded to find ways to rapidly decode genomes or boost our understanding of DNA data via computational methods. Obama will likely seek similar economic output from the BRAIN project.

"Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation," Obama said in his State of the Union speech, as quoted by Politico. "Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."

Yet in many ways mapping the brain is unlike launching the shuttle into space or even initial efforts to decode human DNA. The Times painted Emory University neuroscientist Donald Stein as skeptical about the aims of the BRAIN project.

"The underlying assumptions about 'mapping the entire brain' are very controversial," Stein said, as quoted by the newspaper. He noted that changes in brain chemistry were "not likely to be able to be imaged by the current technologies that these people are proposing."

The Allen Institute, bankrolled by billionaire Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, has already begun similar work on exploring complex brain functions. It's now going to join Team Obama on the new Brain project. And recently the European Union committed 1 billion euros to a massive pan-European brain project.

- here's the Times article
- check out the item from Politico
- find Time's post here
- and see the White House release

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