President Obama Unveils Brain Map Initiative

Almost exactly ten years after the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, President Obama recently unveiled another large, government-backed research project: the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. Calling the brain "an enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked," President Obama laid out broad plans for the project, which will devote more than $100 million to brain-related research in 2014.

According to the White House, the broad goals of the initiative are to accelerate the development of new technologies to inform improved treatments for a variety of diseases, reduce language barriers, "prevent, treat, or reverse" post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in veterans, and create jobs.

The project will launch with an initial investment of $120 million split up between three government agencies. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will allocate $50 million of its 2014 budget to the initiative, while the NIH and the NSF will contribute $40 million and $20 million, respectively.

Several private institutions have also promised to support the project. The Allen Institute for Brain Science will spend $60 million a year to fund BRAIN-related projects at the Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute plans to spend $30 million annually. For its part, the Kavli Foundation has pledged $4 million a year for the next ten years. However, the government's funding is subject to Congress' approval, and House Republicans have already indicated a desire to sharply cut future spending.

However, the fact that BRAIN does not yet have clear goals has led some researchers to be skeptical of the initiative. Whether a top-down approach to such a complicated project would be effective has also been an area of concern.

"There is a great deal of exciting work going on in brain-mapping that has the potential to significantly impact the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of childhood diseases such as autism," said Tom Curran, PhD, F.R.S., deputy scientific director of CHOP Research. "President Obama's announcement of an initial $100 million investment in the BRAIN initiative is a great first step in mapping the human brain."