WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday proposed an effort to map the brain’s activity in unprecedented detail as a step toward finding better ways to treat such conditions as Alzheimer’s, autism, stroke and traumatic brain injuries.
He asked Congress to spend $100 million next year to start a project that will explore details of the brain.
Obama said the BRAIN Initiative could create jobs and told scientists gathered in the White House’s East Room the research has the potential to improve the lives of billions of people worldwide.
“As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away,” Obama said. “We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”
BRAIN stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. The idea, which Obama proposed in his State of the Union address, would require the development of new technology that can record the electrical activity of individual cells and complex neural circuits in the brain “at the speed of thought,” the White House said.
Scientists unconnected to the project praised the idea.
Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, called the new funding proposed by Obama “a very important investment in basic brain science. He is endorsing the idea that brain science is very important to the understanding of humanity.”
An investment in basic brain science, Cummings said, will help researchers “trying to find ways to treat and cure all diseases” associated with the brain.
Obama wants the initial $100 million investment to support research at the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation.
Obama also wants private companies, universities and philanthropists to partner with the federal agencies in support of the research. And he wants a study of the ethical, legal and societal implications of the research.
The goals of the work are unclear at this point. A working group at NIH, co-chaired by Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann of The Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, would work on defining the goals and develop a multiyear plan to achieve them that included cost estimates.
David Fitzpatrick, scientific director and CEO of the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter, Fla., is unconnected with the project, but seems to be enthusiastic.
“Ultimately, you can’t fix it if you don’t know how it works,” he said. “We need this fundamental understanding of neuronal circuits, their structure, their function and their development in order to make progress on these disorders.”
Review-Journal staff writer Paul Harasim contributed to this report.