04.03.13

Obama Launches BRAIN Initiative to Map the Human Brain

Go, Big Science! On Tuesday the president unveiled his BRAIN initiative, aimed at unlocking the mysteries of the human brain. Eliza Shapiro reports on the project’s potential ethical implications.

We may not be colonizing Mars or putting another man on the moon, but the Obama administration took its first step toward Big Science innovation on Tuesday when it unveiled the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, along with a $100 million kick-start.

The BRAIN initiative’s goal is just as lofty as space travel: understanding and mapping the human brain.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away,” Obama said at a press conference on Tuesday. “We can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

The scientific community has largely responded to the project with delight.

“I think this is a fantastic, historic day,” said Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize–winning neuropsychiatrist at Columbia University.

Kandel and his peers were skeptical when they first heard about the project, worried that funding for small projects would be diverted to the federal program and that the project lacked structure, he said. But now he feels the project is in “excellent hands,” he added.

He also emphasized the potential the BRAIN initiative has globally. “Unlike going to the moon, this is an international enterprise,” he said. “If you cure Parkinson’s in New York City, you cure it all over the world.”

While the initiative has no specific set of goals or endpoint yet, a blueprint for the project was laid out in a recent article in Neuron, a neuroscience journal. It called for new technologies for 3-D brain imaging, novel ways of diagnosing and assessing neurological illnesses, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, and therapies for schizophrenia and autism.

The Obama administration is partnering on the initiative with the National Institutes of Health, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department's research arm), and the National Science Foundation, as well as four private research institutes: the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

But why focus on the brain now, with immigration reform, gun control, and the sequester to worry about?

Dr. Clay Reid, a senior investigator at the Allen Institute and a Harvard Medical School professor, says it’s simply an “unprecedented time for neuroscience.”

“It’s all happening at once, and for a good reason,” he said. “There are new electrical, optical, and genetic techniques, and the world is being energized by these capabilities. The ability to look into a living brain and literally see the activity of 1,000 different neurons is a dream come true for people who have been in the business for a while.”

“Here, we don’t know what the goal is. What does it mean to understand the human mind? When will we be satisfied? This is much, much more ambitious.”

While Obama’s announcement was met mostly with praise, some are questioning the ethical implications of new neuroimaging technology, despite Obama’s pledge that his bioethics team will supervise all research.

“The Brain Activity Map Project [BRAIN’s unofficial name] wants to understand how our brains do what it is that they do,” Luke Dittrich wrote in a recent issue of Esquire, “but it just so happens that the technology the project will develop to gain this understanding could also be used to make our brains do whatever they want. Wirelessly. From a distance.”

Dittrich argued that the human brain is too complicated to be studied thoroughly with preexisting technologies. He pointed to sections of the Neuron article that indicate “it will ultimately become feasible to deploy small wireless microcircuits, untethered in living brains, for direct monitoring of neuronal activity.”

“The truth is, most major scientific breakthroughs,” Dittrich wrote, “like the human minds that give birth to them, have light and dark sides. And some of those dark sides are darker than others.”

There are a wealth of potential ethical issues involved in how people access and alter their own brains, said Dr. Nita Farahany, a bioethicist at Duke University and a member of Obama’s Commission on Bioethical Issues.

Possible fields of inquiry for the initiative include government and military uses of imaging technology. Farahany has urged an "an ongoing ethical component" to the project, which may span decades.

Comparisons with that other Big Science project—the Human Genome Project, launched in 1984—intended to clarify the scope of the BRAIN initiative are misleading, experts say.

The cost of the Human Genome Project, $3.8 billion, far exceeded the initial round of funding for the BRAIN initiative. And Kandel said the goal of the Genome Project, to map all genes in human DNA, was much clearer than BRAIN.

“We knew the endpoint,” Kandel said. “But here, we don’t know what the goal is. What does it mean to understand the human mind? When will we be satisfied? This is much, much more ambitious.”

And that’s a good thing, he said.

“This is a bold, creative, wonderful experiment.”

Editor's note: This article has been modified to clarify a quote from Dr. Nita Farahany.