* Project may aid understanding of diseases affecting 100
* Investment would involve $100 million in fiscal 2014
* Spending request may face chilly reception in Congress
By Jeff Mason and Julie Steenhuysen
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO, April 2 The White House
unveiled a sweeping new initiative on Tuesday to map the
individual cells and circuits that make up the human brain, a
project that will give scientists a better understanding of how
a healthy brain works and how to devise better treatments for
injuries and diseases of the brain.
"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked,"
said President Barack Obama of the ambitious project unveiled at
a White House ceremony packed with scientists.
Called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative
Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the program will be funded
with an initial $100 million from the president's fiscal 2014
budget, which the White House is slated to release next week.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the federally funded
National Institutes of Health, likened the initiative to mapping
the human genome, a $3.8 billion effort he helped to lead as
former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
"The human brain is at the present time the most complicated
organ in the known universe," Collins said in a conference call.
"We aim through this ambitious - some would call it audacious -
project, to try to unravel those mysteries."
Collins said the NIH plans to assemble a "dream team" of 15
scientists who will set the priorities for the research.
Initially, scientists will try to learn the language of how the
Ultimately, Collins said, the effort should allow
researchers to understand such complex diseases as epilepsy,
autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, traumatic brain
injury and a long list of conditions "that collectively affect
100 million Americans and cost us $500 billion each year in
terms of healthcare costs."
'PRETTY GOOD START'
Collins conceded that the initial investment of $100 million
in the first year is just a start for this project, which likely
will take many years to bear fruit. But he noted that the Human
Genome Project started off with a $28 million investment.
"Even if you throw in an inflation factor, it's a pretty
good start," said Collins, who noted that NIH spends a total of
$5.5 billion for all of its neuroscience research efforts.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the Democratic
president, who is in a standoff with Republican lawmakers over
how to reduce the U.S. deficit, will be able to get a $100
million proposal through a highly divided Congress. But the
president said that investment in areas such as education and
development should be critical even as spending cuts are needed
to address the country's fiscal woes.
"We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest
of the world races ahead. We have to seize them. I don't want
the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or
Germany. I want them to happen right here," Obama said.
Although the funding requires congressional approval,
agencies have some discretion to start working on the program
ahead of time, a White House spokesman said.
The main thrust of the BRAIN Initiative "is to be able to
study the brain at a large scale to see how lots of neurons work
together to produce high-level functions like learning, memory
and creativity," said neuroscientist John Donoghue of Brown
University. Today's brain imaging, such as functional magnetic
resonance imaging or fMRI, "can't see the activity of individual
neurons," he said: "it's like reading the newspaper at two arms'
But by monitoring activity in individual neurons,
researchers hope to see, for instance, "how the brain produces
language, including how the visual cortex interacts with speech
and language areas so you can read a word, speak it and
understand it. It's a big network of neurons all communicating
with each other," Donoghue said.
"But because we don't currently have the tools for this, the
first step will be to develop them. That will involve, for
instance, bringing in neuro-engineers to figure out how we can
take advantage of advances in wireless technology" to place
multiple probes in the brain to measure activity at the level of
individual neurons, he said.
BOOST FOR COMPUTER DESIGN?
Initial winners from the push will likely be information
companies, said Tom Kalil of the White House's Office of Science
& Technology Policy. Kalil told the briefing that insights from
understanding how the human brain works could inform the design
of next-generation computers.
"It could have a big impact on the entire information and
communication technology industry," he said, adding that
ultimately, the push will improve the ability to diagnose, treat
and ultimately prevent diseases and disorders of the brain.
The effort may also attract fresh interest from drug
companies, which have largely abandoned neuroscience because of
costly, failed attempts at developing drugs using incomplete or
faulty models of how the brain works.
Dr. Christer Nordstedt, vice president of neuroscience
research and clinical development at Eli Lilly and Co,
which has nine potential new brain drugs in the works, likened
the task to trying to fix a broken engine without knowing how it
is supposed to work.
"We've been handicapped by the fact that we have been
studying diseases in animals that don't really exist in animals.
Mice don't get depression. They don't get schizophrenia. They
don't get Alzheimer's disease," he said, adding that efforts
like the BRAIN mapping project are "incredibly important" to the
search for better treatments.
The program drew praise from many groups advocating for
brain research, including the Society of Neuroscience, which
said the project could lead to "revolutionary advances" that
could affect more than 1,000 diseases and disorders of the
Harry Johns, president and chief executive of the
Alzheimer's Association, said in a statement: "The federal
government has realized incredible success when it invests in
tackling challenges of this magnitude, and Alzheimer's will be
Researchers said in February that the number of U.S.
residents aged 65 and older living with Alzheimer's would nearly
triple to 13.8 million by 2050, drawing attention to the need
for further study.