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Shots - Health News
Obama's Plan To Explore The Brain: A 'Most Audacious' Project
Originally published on Mon April 8, 2013 2:35 pm
President Obama has announced an ambitious plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain.
In a speech Tuesday, Obama said he will ask Congress for $100 million in 2014 to "better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember." Other goals include finding new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.
The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative would accomplish this by developing tools that would allow researchers to monitor millions or even billions of individual neurons as they interact to form thoughts or create memories.
It's an amazingly ambitious idea, says Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. "To understand how the human brain works is about the most audacious scientific project you can imagine," he says. "It's the most complicated structure in the known universe."
The technologies that allow scientists to watch the brain at work are advancing with amazing speed, Collins says, so he thinks it's the right time to take a chance.
"Five years ago, this might have seemed out of reach," he says. "Five years from now it will seem like we waited too late to take advantage of the opportunity."
Collins was the federal scientist in charge of the Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003. But he says this initiative is a bit different because it won't be clear when the job is done.
People are remarkably similar genetically, so researchers can learn a lot about all people by looking at the genetic sequences of just a few, says David Van Essen of Washington University in St. Louis. But with human brains, he says, "the differences are vastly greater."
And trying to keep track of every one of the brain's nearly 100 billion neurons may be unrealistic, says Van Essen, who is also principle investigator of the Human Connectome Project, an NIH-funded effort to map connections in the human brain. But he says it is likely that researchers will be able to monitor smaller brains, like those found in fruit flies or mice.
Scientists involved in creating the BRAIN initiative say it could provide some really helpful research tools even if it falls short of some goals.
"What's going on in the brain is like a conversation between thousands of neurons all at once," says John Donoghue, director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science at Brown University. "So the tools we need are the ability to pick up many, many cells at the same time. And you have to pick them up so you can hear each conversation very clearly."
Donoghue says the ability to do that would make a big difference in his own efforts to allow paralyzed people to control a robotic arm as if it were their own. "We know enough to get crude approximations," he says. "But if we really understood the brain's language, the brain's code, we could potentially recreate everything you do with your own arm."
The BRAIN initiative also could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease and perhaps new treatments, says Guy Eakin, vice president for scientific affairs at the BrightFocus Foundation, which supports research on Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma.
For example, Eakin says, some research indicates that Alzheimer's spreads from cell to cell in the brain, using the connections between cells. With a better understanding of those connections, he says, "perhaps we can identify interventions that would stop that spreading."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
At the White House today, the president said our brains remain an enormous mystery.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action, and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.
SIEGEL: But NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, any practical application is probably many years away.
JON HAMIILTON, BYLINE: When Obama asks for $100 million to kickstart the public-private effort in 2014, his idea is to help scientists study working brains in unprecedented detail. Ideally, this would mean monitoring millions or even billions of individual neurons, as they interact to form thoughts or create memories.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, says calling the project ambitious would be an understatement.
FRANCIS COLLINS: To understand how the human brain works is about the most audacious scientific project you can imagine. It's the most complicated structure in the known universe.
HAMIILTON: But Collins says the technologies that allow scientists to watch the brain at work are advancing with amazing speed. So he says it's the right time to take a chance.
COLLINS: Five years ago, this might have seemed out of reach. Five years from now, it will seem like we waited too late to take advantage of the opportunity.
HAMIILTON: Collins was the scientist in charge of the Human Genome Project. But he says this initiative is a bit different.
COLLINS: Clearly, the Genome Project, we were able to say in 2003: We're done, because we read out all three billion letters of a reference human DNA instruction book. The brain, being able to say you're done, well, I can't imagine what that will look like.
HAMIILTON: In the meantime, the scientists who first proposed the BRAIN Initiative say it could provide some really helpful research tools. John Donoghue is at Brown University.
JOHN DONOGHUE: What's going on in the brain is like a conversation between thousands of neurons all at once. And the brain is able to sort this out as thoughts and creativity and emotions. So the tools we need are the ability to pick up many, many cells at the same time. And you have to pick them up so you can hear each conversation very clearly.
HAMIILTON: Donoghue's says the ability to do that would make a big difference in his own efforts to allow paralyzed people to control a robotic arm, as if it were their own.
DONOGHUE: We know enough to get crude approximations. But if we really understood the brain's language, the brain's code, we could in fact potentially recreate everything that you do with your own arm.
HAMIILTON: Other brain scientists say they're excited by the new initiative, but cautious about what it's likely to accomplish. David Van Essen, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the principal investigator of the Human Connectome Project, an NIH-funded effort to map connections in the human brain.
Van Essen says the new BRAIN Initiative's goal of measuring the activity in individual neurons is incredibly ambitious, because people have so many of them - nearly 100 billion. He says researchers would be more likely to succeed with creatures that have much smaller brains.
DAVID VAN ESSEN: Like mice and fruit flies and other animals. But I honestly don't think it will be realistic to have that kind of sensitivity for mapping the human brain.
HAMIILTON: Van Essen also says the BRAIN Initiative is likely to be much tougher than, say, mapping the human genome. One reason, he says, is that every brain is different.
ESSEN: Whether you're talking about one individual human brain to another human brain, or one mouse brain to a monkey brain to a human brain, the differences are vastly greater than the differences in the genome.
HAMIILTON: And, of course, the Human Genome Project got $3 billion over 10 years. By comparison, the BRAIN Initiative, if Congress decides to fund it, would get a fraction of that amount in the first year with no clear promise of how much would follow.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.