The human brain, as Francis Collins recently said, “is the most complicated organ in the universe.” We only have vague ideas today of how it works at the level of genes, and neural circuits. Deeper understanding could help us unravel some of today’s great mysteries, from autism to Alzheimer’s to epilepsy.
The sequencing of the human genome was controversial for a long time, but it’s starting to pay off with a new wave of genomic-based diagnostics and treatments. Venturing next into the unknown frontiers of the brain is an opportunity so big, so important, so darn interesting, it should be something our society eagerly supports and expects to pay dividends far in the future.
Yet the inspired idea known as the “Brain Activity Map” runs the risk of becoming a casualty of small-bore thinking in science, politics, and business. In a world where “sequester” has entered everyday spoken language, many politicians and scientists are tiptoeing around, afraid of vocally supporting something perceived as too risky, too ambitious, too unrealistic. But the truth is we can afford it, we can actually afford to spend a lot more on it, and it would be a wise investment of tax dollars.
Many readers have surely seen the headlines from last Tuesday, but for those who haven’t, here’s a recap. President Obama, after alluding to a brain project in his State of the Union address in February, formally proposed a $100 million first-year budget in 2014 for the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. The goal of this project isn’t clearly defined yet, but loosely speaking, it’s about inventing new technologies to help scientists explore the complex circuitry of the human brain in action. We’re talking about our first serious glimpse into how those 1,000 trillion connections in the human brain work.
Obama, ever the gifted communicator, saw the poetry in this adventure.
“As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter sitting between our ears,” Obama said on Tuesday.
Immediately, critics spoke up, mostly from some quite nervous camps within science. The goals weren’t clear from the outset, so it’s not really like the Human Genome Project, they said. The funding is small potatoes, not enough to make an impact. The tools don’t yet exist to gather data we need to even ask some of the important questions. There aren’t enough theoreticians in the NIH working group to crystallize the right questions to ask. There aren’t enough nanotechnologists in the group to invent the tools. Why not leave this kind of work to industry, some rich foundations, and billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen? The NIH budget is getting whacked across the board by sequestration, so why start something new? Aren’t we, as a nation, supposed to be broke?
All of those criticisms had made their way to George Church, the prominent genomics innovator at Harvard Medical School, by the time I stopped by his office in Boston about 48 hours after the White House press conference. Church, a veteran of the original Human Genome Project political debates of 30 years ago, has been part of a small group of scientists pushing this brain initiative for the past year through a series of articles in Science, Neuron, and ACSNano.
Church, no surprise, sounded upbeat about what BRAIN can accomplish, starting with the early meetings that have helped define its objectives. “We called it a ‘Brain Activity Map’ to distinguish it from anatomical maps,” Church says. “The new acronym, which has a capital ‘N’ in it, stands for neurotechnologies, as in plural. I like that because the emphasis is not on a map, which sounds kind of static, even if you put the word ‘activity’ in front of it. It sounds a little monolithic, and we were a little OCD [obsessive compulsive] to get that last synaptic link.”
You can almost hear Church, in comments like this, doing his best to disarm the scientific critics that he remembers from the genome project days. Back then, people worried that a “big science” project would siphon money away from other worthy science projects—namely their own. People wondered what the heck we’d learn anyway, since most of the genome was thought to be meaningless “junk.” At the beginning, the sequencing technologies didn’t really exist to give us a full genome map in a reasonably cost-effective way. Besides, who wanted to work on the mere engineering task of automated sequencing, when graduate students were plentiful and worked on manual sequencing for dirt-cheap wages?
Building on the lessons of the genome project, Church is determined to deliver this time on a project that … Next Page »
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