Obama's Moonshot — Map the Human Brain

(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)National Journal

We have mapped out the human genome, sent probes into the vast reaches of the solar system, and split the atom. And yet we know relatively little about the organ that makes these discoveries possible: the human brain. Scientists are now eager to embark on an ambitious, and potentially fruitless, decades-long endeavor to find out, exactly, how the most essential human organ functions.

Ambitious science projects can often spark new industries and innovations. Spinoff discoveries from the Apollo missions can still be found in everyday life: from firefighter suits to air-cushioned sneakers, CAT scans, and cordless power drills. The human genome project in the 1990s opened the door for a whole new field of genetics-based medicine.

President Obama on Tuesday announced a "moonshot" proposal of his own: Map the human brain.

"As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom," the president said at the White House, "but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in those three pounds, amounting to 150 trillion connections. The BRAIN Initiative, as it is called, would aim to map out each and every one of them. This will be no small endeavor. The president has proposed $100 million for the project in his 2014 budget, which has to be approved by Congress, and the undertaking may last decades.

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"To date, it has not been possible to reconstruct the full activity patterns of even a single region of the brain," researchers spearheading the endeavor write in the journal Neuron. Whole new research techniques will have to be invented. Scientists would start out small, mapping the brains of tiny animals, such as fruit flies, and then work their way, slowly, to the human organ.

The outcomes of the project are both vague and potentially earth-shattering. In mapping the human brain, scientists could find a way to recreate it, allowing computers to have human-like intelligence. But that's on the extreme ends of the possibilities. Scientists hope a completed map of the brain could lead to better outcomes for mental illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, or dementia.

But that's only the hope. The effort could lead to not much at all, as some in the scientific community are saying. To them, the project is too open-ended. They say the brain is too elusive of an organ to pin down, as it constantly changes and adapts over the course of a lifetime. "Successful big science projects are engineering projects with clear, technically feasible goals: setting a human on the moon, sequencing the human genome, finding the Higgs Boson," Partha Mitra, a neuroscientist, writes in Scientific American. "What we really need to understand is whether the overall goal is meaningful."

Regardless, the proposal is a promising move in a scientific research environment with diminishing resources. President Obama's promises on funding scientific research haven't exactly reflected reality. "Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race," he said during the most recent State of the Union. But yet, just weeks later, Congress let pass across-the-board budget cuts that would strangle federal money to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Last month in The Atlantic, the directors of the Energy Department's National Laboratories spelled out the consequences for the scientific community. "This drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years," they wrote. "This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities."

The president acknowledged this in his speech Tuesday. "When our leading thinkers wonder if it still makes sense to encourage young people to get involved in science in the first place because they're not sure whether the research funding and the grants will be there to cultivate an entire new generation of scientists, that's something we should worry about," Obama said.

But while the BRAIN proposal would patch up some of the lost funding, it's really a boon to brain scientists and their affiliated researchers. Studying bird migrations? You're probably out of luck.