Feb. 18, 2013 at 10:27 PM ET
BOSTON — The brain-mapping project that the Obama administration wants to facilitate isn't necessarily aimed at adding billions of dollars to the money already being spent on research, according to the scientists who inspired the idea. Instead, it's aimed at harnessing new technologies to uncover the secrets of neural function less expensively and more completely.
"We can bring down the cost and increase the quality of the technology," said Harvard geneticist George Church, one of the researchers who proposed the Brain Activity Map Project last year. "We are trying to work with current funding [levels] to bring down the cost."
The New York Times reported on Monday that the White House has embraced the idea of having the Office of Science and Technology Policy spearhead the project, with participation by the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. The federal initiative is to be unveiled as early as next month, the Times quoted its sources as saying.
The roots of the project go back months if not years earlier: The goals of the BAM Project were outlined last June in a white paper appearing in the journal Neuron. The researchers proposed a 15-year international effort to map the functions of the brain's complex neural circuitry to an unprecedented degree — using traditional tools such as magnetic resonance imaging in combination with novel technologies such as nanosensors and wireless fiber-optic probes that can be implanted into the brain, and genetically engineered cells that can be linked up with brain cells to record their activity.
The scientists' idea was to start with mice and work their way up to primates. "We do not exclude the extension of the BAM Project to humans, and if this project is to be applicable to clinical research or practice, its special challenges are worth addressing early," they wrote.
The discoveries generated by the effort could point to new strategies for dealing with brain-centered maladies such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism and schizophrenia.
Church and his colleagues compared the BAM Project's potential impact to the effects of the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project, a 13-year-long effort that analysts say generated $796 billion in economic activity. "After the genome project, we brought the cost [of whole-genome sequencing] down by a million-fold," Church said. Advanced technologies for studying brain activity could bring savings on the same scale, he said.
In this month's State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama made a similar point: "Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."
Debate over the dollars
The Times' report on the project quoted scientists familiar with the BAM Project as saying they hoped it would receive as much support as the Human Genome Project did, which amounted to more than $300 million a year. That was widely interpreted as implying that more than $3 billion would be shifted over to the effort from other federally supported research over the next decade – a prospect that rankled some observers.
"If there is money for frivolities like the Billion Dollar Brain Project, doesn't it show that NIH has too much money?" evolutionary geneticist Detlef Weigel of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology wrote in a Twitter comment.
Some scientists noted that the European Union has already established a Human Brain Project in cooperation with a range of research centers, including some that are expected to play a role in the BAM Project. The European-led project is due to receive up to 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) over the next decade.
Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, pointed to a blog posting in which he said grand projects in biology such as Project ENCODE for DNA analysis were emerging as the "greatest threat" to individual discovery-driven science because they crowded out less costly, smaller-scale studies.
"It's one thing to fund neuroscience, another to have a centralized 10-year project to 'solve the brain,'" Eisen wrote in a Twitter update.
Emphasis on existing funds
Church said he couldn't speak for the federal government, and he didn't rule out the possibility that the project would receive new funding. But he noted that the concept outlined last year emphasized better coordination of existing publicly and privately supported brain research efforts, which already receive hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
"We want to use existing funds," he told NBC News.
The BAM Project received a strong endorsement from Allan Jones, chief executive officer of the privately backed Allen Institute for Brain Science.
"Our own work over the last 10 years has shown that large-scale brain research and sharing vast data sets and tools publicly for use by scientists around the world accelerate progress and catalyze important research advances across the field," Jones said in a statement emailed to NBC News. "In early 2012, we launched our large-scale initiative to understand brain activity, creating a foundation for other related projects."
The Allen Institute helped organize a workshop that gave rise to last year's white paper proposing the BAM Project, and it is also a partner in the Human Brain Project. Jones said such efforts "complement our work at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and hold promise for helping to bring on new discoveries about the human brain and bring us ever closer to much needed advances in medicine."
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.