President Obama pitched a human brain research initiative on Tuesday that he likened to the Human Genome Project to map all the human DNA, and said it will not only help find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and autism, but create jobs and drive economic growth.
Obama proposed $100 million in federal funding to kick start the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies or BRAIN Initiative.
“Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury and PTSD for our wounded veterans coming home,” Obama said at an event unveiling the initiative at the White House.
He said federal investment in basic research had led to completely unexpected inventions, from the Internet to GPS technology. “The Apollo project that put man on the moon gave us, eventually, CAT scans,” Obama said.
He said the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, had paid $140 for every dollar invested.
“As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, study particles smaller than an atom but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter than sits between our ears,” Obama said.
"Ideas are what power our economy. It’s what sets us apart. It’s what America has been all about," he added.
"We have been a nation of dreamers and risk-takers; people who see what nobody else sees sooner than anybody else sees it. We do innovation better than anybody else -- and that makes our economy stronger. When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else."
Obama said he’ll send the proposal to Congress next week as part of his budget request. Although Congress is working to slash the federal deficit, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor signalled an early willingness to pay for this one.
“Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding, by reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research into expanded medical research, including the expedited mapping of the human brain. It's great science,” Cantor said in a statement.
It's not clear just what the initiative will do. Obama and collins said they'd appointed a "dream team" of experts to lay out the agenda -- they should report back before the end of the summer. They are led by neurobiologists Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University.
“Investing in biomedical research is one of the wisest choices we can make as a nation,” National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins told the gathering. “The United States has been at the forefront of one medical breakthrough after another.”
The public-private initiative, with money from groups such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's brain mapping project, aims to find a way to take pictures of the brain in action in real time.
The $100 million funding will come from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, the White House said.
“We want to understand the brain to know how we reason, how we memorize, how we learn, how we move, how our emotions work. These abilities define us, yet we hardly understand any of it," said Miyoung Chun, vice president of science programs at The Kavli Foundation, which is taking part in the initiative and which funds basic research in neuroscience and physics.
The project has some big money and some big science to build on. Allen pumped another $300 million into his institute's brain mapping initiative a year ago, and has published freely available maps of the human and mouse brains. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute built a whole research campus devoted to brain science, called Janelia Farm, in Virginia.
Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) pointed to a project that allowed a quadriplegic woman to control a robot arm with her thoughts alone.
"There is nothing like a project to inspire people to go to that next level," Collins told a telephone briefing.
Not everybody is happy about a centralized, administration-led project. Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said earlier this year that grand projects in biology such as Project ENCODE for DNA analysis were emerging as the "greatest threat" to individual discovery-driven science.
"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 in February.