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Ambitious effort aims to map brain

Obama outlines a public-private initiative patterned after the Human Genome Project.

April 03, 2013|Melissa Healy
  • US President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room at the White House announce his administration's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative.
US President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room at the White House announce… (JEWEL SAMAD / AFP/Getty…)

Making good on a promise first hinted at during his State of the Union speech in February, President Obama on Tuesday unveiled the broad outlines of a scientific initiative aimed at mapping the human brain. The project's ambitious goals include understanding how the brain forms memories and controls behavior; how it becomes damaged by conditions such as Parkinson's disease and autism; and how it can be repaired when afflicted by Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses.

The BRAIN initiative -- short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies -- is modeled after the Human Genome Project, in which the federal government partnered with philanthropies and scientific entrepreneurs to identify and characterize the nearly 25,000 genes that make up human DNA.

"A human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections," Obama said Tuesday as he outlined the initiative in the East Room of the White House. In the absence of a detailed map of the brain's complex circuitry and operating instructions that could help troubleshoot when the brain's wiring goes awry, scientists often grope in the dark for therapies that can treat Alzheimer's or autism or to reverse the effects of a stroke, Obama said. "So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 05, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Brain research initiative: An article in the April 3 Section A about the Obama administration's new brain research initiative said that the Human Genome Project received $3.8 billion in federal funding over five years. That funding was disbursed over 15 years.

The funding available beyond this year for the BRAIN initiative remains unclear. Calling the "three pounds of matter that sits between our ears" a mystery to be unraveled, Obama said his proposed budget of $110 million for fiscal year 2014 would "help get this project off the ground." Private sector partners the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Kavli Foundation have committed $158 million to the project.

Over five years of the Human Genome Project, the federal government invested $3.8 billion. But federal spending in its first year was modest: $27.9 million.

In a bid to fend off opposition from budget-cutters on Capitol Hill and cast the initiative as an investment in the U.S. economy, the White House said that every federal dollar expended on the Human Genome Project went on to generate $141 in economic output.

If Obama's proposed budget for the project is approved by Congress this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the office within the Pentagon known as DARPA, will disburse about $50 million in grants under the BRAIN initiative next year. The National Institutes of Health will contribute $40 million, and the National Science Foundation $20 million.

Funding in future years will be negotiated yearly.

"Out of this is going to come a foundation of understanding the brain that we have dreamed of all through human history," said Dr. Francis Collins, who was in charge of the government's role in the Human Genome Project and is now director of the National Institutes of Health.

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said her agency would focus on the brain trauma research it has pioneered in recent years. That work was spurred by the brain injuries and PTSD that have afflicted thousands of U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting insights and treatments will also benefit civilians whose brains have been injured by strokes, illness, car crashes and falls, she said.

DARPA, whose early research helped spawn the Internet, will also look to fund brain research that would make prosthetic devices more responsive to human thought, as well as other cognitive research that might inspire new information-processing and computing techniques, Prabhakar said. Both subjects are of keen interest to the military.

The White House will also assign the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues the task of exploring the ethical, legal and societal problems certain to arise as brain science advances. That panel has already weighed in on the social and ethical implications of drugs and technologies that promise to enhance the cognitive performance of healthy people.

As future work unlocks the workings of the brain when a patient appears to be in a vegetative state, those experts will probably wrestle with new definitions of life and death. And as the field of neuroprosthetics makes human thought increasingly discernible to computers, age-old fears about the use of mind-reading technologies are likely to spark investigation.

Despite uncertainty about future funding, the initiative drew jubilant praise from scientists engaged in brain research.

"Where you put a major investment in understanding the most complicated thing we know -- the human brain -- there could be benefits to every aspect of society," said Dr. John C. Mazziotta, a leading neuroscientist who is executive vice dean of UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. Scientists could make new discoveries about aging, education, creativity, psychiatric disorders and social problems such as homelessness, he said.

But such lofty goals will not come cheap, cautioned Larry Swanson, president of the Society for Neuroscience.

The initiative will fall short of expectations if federal funds dedicated to the project are the object of yearly political haggling.

Obama on Tuesday offered a nod to such concerns.

"Of course, none of this will be easy," he said. "If it was, we would already know everything there was about how the brain works, and presumably my life would be simpler here. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington."


Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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