What Is the BRAIN Initiative, Anyway?

The Obama administration hopes to do for brains what the Human Genome Project did for genetics

Photo: KarmaOWL

This morning, President Obama announced that his 2014 budget would include $100 million for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. As the New York Times writes, the administration hopes this project will  do for the brain what the 1990 Human Genome project did for genetics.

So just what is the BRAIN Initiative?

It’ll be a decade-long efforts to understand the inner workings of the human brain and chart all of its activities once and for all. Like the Human Genome project, this new effort will draw from federal agencies, private foundations and scientists. In the best-case scenario,  the Times writes, the project could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and a number of mental illnesses. Or it could help develop artificial intelligence or nail down the elusive concept of consciousness.

As the Times points out, the brain remains one of science’s greatest mysteries:

Composed of roughly 100 billion neurons that each electrically “spike” in response to outside stimuli, as well as in vast ensembles based on conscious and unconscious activity, the human brain is so complex that scientists have not yet found a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons at once, and in most cases that is done invasively with physical probes.

But a group of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists say they believe that technologies are at hand to make it possible to observe and gain a more complete understanding of the brain, and to do it less intrusively.

NPR has reported that some of this work has already started; there’s just a need for more cooperation:

There are several ways to map the brain, Zimmer says, one well-known example being an MRI. The resolution, however, is not nearly high enough for scientists to see all of the intricate wiring of the brain, where hundreds of thousands or even millions of neurons can fit in an area the size of a poppy seed.

“There are people who are trying to go down to that level,” he says.

Some of this is already happening, albeit slowly, in labs around the world, Zimmer says. The problem is the efforts aren’t coordinated.

One-hundred million dollars is just a tiny bit of the funding that’ll be needed to do this work, though. In the end, it’ll likely cost billions to truly understand how our brains work.

More from Smithsonian.com:

This Is How Your Brain Works 
Why Are Our Brains Wrinkly?