Obama initiative aims to unravel mysteries of human brain

Scientists liken it to mapping of genome

April 02, 2013|From Sun news services

The White House proposed a sweeping new initiative Tuesday to map the individual cells and circuits that make up the human brain, a project that will give scientists a better understanding of how a healthy brain works and how to devise better treatments for injuries and diseases.

"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked," said President Barack Obama of the project unveiled at a White House ceremony packed with scientists.

Called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, the program would be funded with an initial $100 million from the president's fiscal 2014 budget, which the White House is to release next week.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, likened the initiative to mapping the human genome, a $3.8 billion effort he helped to lead as former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

"The human brain is at the present time the most complicated organ in the known universe," Collins said in a conference call. "We aim through this ambitious — some would call it audacious — project, to try to unravel those mysteries."

Collins said the NIH plans to assemble a "dream team" of 15 scientists who will set the priorities for the research. Initially, scientists will try to learn the language of how the brain operates.

Ultimately, Collins said, the effort should enable researchers to understand such complex diseases as epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injury and other conditions "that collectively affect millions of Americans and cost us $500 billion each year in terms of health care costs."

Dr. Justin C. McArthur, neurologist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said research of the brain has advanced through the years, but understanding lags behind discoveries about cancer, AIDS and other diseases.

"This initiative will take us far beyond where we are now," said McArthur, also director of the department of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Hopefully, we will be able to see how the brain is connected, how the brain is wired and what happens when the brain is disrupted by the disease process."

The brain is difficult to study because the thick skull makes it hard to reach and taking samples from a living patient can be unsafe, McArthur said.

Obama's initiative would help to prioritize and focus brain research, he said. It would bring many disciplines together — from science to engineering to technology — for a comprehensive look at the brain. He said there is potential to develop drug therapies and other treatments to treat neurological disorders.

"It is establishing a priority for where we want the research to go, rather than everybody scattering in different directions," McArthur said.

Dr. Paul Fishman, an Alzheimer's expert and professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the research could have broad implications like the Human Genome Project it was modeled after.

Fishman pointed out that human genome research focused on gaining knowledge of genes and then later figuring out how to apply the research to treating illness. He said the brain-mapping project would also take time to figure out the implications.

Collins said the investment of $100 million in the first year is just a start. He noted that the Human Genome Project began with a $28 million investment.

"Even if you throw in an inflation factor, it's a pretty good start," said Collins. He said the NIH spends a total of $5.5 billion for all of its neuroscience research efforts.

There is no guarantee that the Democratic president, who is in a standoff with Republican lawmakers over how to reduce the U.S. deficit, will be able to get a $100 million proposal through a highly divided Congress. But Obama said investment in such areas as education and development should be critical even as spending cuts are needed to address the country's fiscal woes.

"We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead," Obama said. "We have to seize them."

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker and Reuters news service contributed to this article.

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