BRAIN is smart

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The recently announced Washington initiative known as BRAIN—Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies—has its critics and supporters. I’m planted in the latter camp.

Funding for the 10-year, $100 million initiative announced by President Obama earlier this month will start in 2014 and is to be distributed through the National Science Foundation (NSF), Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In addition, four private ventures have pledged contributions.

The project will bring together scientists from private and public institutions to investigate how the brain’s 100 billion cells interact with each other. Many researchers believe that brain mapping could unlock the secrets behind complex diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.
But while some scientists praise the effort, others criticize it for its undefined goals as well as   costs that are projected to go from the $100 million in 2014 to $3 billion over the next decade—a hefty price tag for sure as federal programs and entities are feeling the effects of the budget sequester.

OK, I get that. But who can deny that government-funded science projects have over the years created jobs and generated life-changing and life-saving knowledge? Consider, for example, all that’s come from the US space program and our “war on cancer.”

There are uncanny links between BRAIN and other “big science” initiatives. For example, the  Human Genome Project (HGP), the endeavor to decode our DNA, also began as a $3 billion decade-long effort and was dismissed by its critics back in the day.

Today, data from the Human Genome Project have improved our understanding of everything from medicine to evolution. By searching the human genome database, scientists are developing targeted therapies for diseases such as cancer, with biotech companies using the data to create genetic tests that can show predispositions to illnesses such as breast cancer and liver disease.

The Human Genome Project also provided a significant boost to the American economy. According to a 2011 report by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, the venture led to nearly $800 billion in overall economic growth—$141 generated for every dollar invested. These gains came from 310,000 new jobs and innovations in biotechnology.

As for the BRAIN initiative, brain mapping could also create entirely new industries resulting from new technologies such as 3D imaging techniques and computer systems that mimic the connections within the human brain. Perhaps it could lead to all-out “war on dementia,” which is why the Alzheimer’s Association stands behind President Obama’s plan.

Simply put, the BRAIN initiative is just plain smart.

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