President Obama is introduced by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, at the BRAIN Initiative event Tuesday in the White House. / White House photo by Chuck Kennedy
President Obama announced a federal brain mapping project Tuesday, aimed at conquering challenges such as epilepsy, autism and Alzheimer's disease.
Expected since January's State of the Union speech, the decades-long effort would initially be funded at roughly $100 million in the proposed 2014 federal budget that Obama said he would submit to Congress next week.
Obama combined science and the economy in his announcement, describing the proposed brain mapping project as the kind of government program that can generate jobs - and yet is at risk because of the federal budget sequester.
"We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead," Obama said. "There is this tremendous mystery that is waiting to be unlocked."
In announcing the project, Obama added a call for increased support of federal research and argued against sequestration - an ongoing series of $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says that the brain mapping project is "exciting, important research" and that "it would be appropriate for the White House to reprioritize existing research funding into these areas."
Obama and aides say a new debt plan should be balanced between spending cuts and new tax revenues to be raised by closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy. Revenues can be used to maintain vital programs such as research projects; solar energy and electric vehicles are cited as potential examples.
National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins says the brain initiative builds on recent advances in attaching electronic implants to brain cells. That was demonstrated last year in dramatic scenes of fully paralyzed patients manipulating robot arms to sip coffee and grasp rubber balls. And through increased computer power, scientists are now better able to collect data from the 86 billion vastly interconnected cells within the 3-pound human brain.
In its first year, $50 million of funding would come from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which pays for prosthetic research aimed at helping paralyzed soldiers. And roughly $40 million would be added to the $5.5 billion that the National Institutes of Health annually spends on neuroscience research already, according to Collins. A final $20 million would be research funds provided by the National Science Foundation for the effort.
"It's a tough time politically to take on an expensive, long-term project like this, but scientifically, the time is ripe, and the impacts on science and medicine could be enormous," says science budget expert Al Teich of George Washington University's Center for International Science & Technology Policy. "Neuroscience is arguably the hottest field in science these days, and we'd be foolish not to try and take advantage of the potential it offers."
NIH-funded research in brain implants and cochlear implant hearing aids already are paying off for patients, says Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue, a leader in efforts to control prosthetic limbs with the mind. "The initiative will be building on decades of research already supported by the federal government." Patient groups, such as the Parkinson's Action Network, and the Society for Neuroscience for researchers also applauded the project.
DARPA chief Arati Prabhakar and Collins both suggest that advances in computer technology as well as patient health might result from the brain mapping effort. "Finding out how the human brain does what it does might tell us the way to use that design for computers in our future," Collins says.
"It's great to see the president supporting basic neuroscience research. And the amount of money is enough to seed new initiatives, which is the way to start something," says neuroscientist Cori Bargmann of The Rockefeller University in New York, who will co-chair a panel setting the project's direction.
However, some researchers, such as fruit-fly genetics expert Michael Eisen of the University of California-Berkeley, criticize the initiative as overly ambitious and overly centralized. "We don't even understand the fly," Eisen says. "I think there is a fundamental misreading of where innovation arises in science here. It doesn't come from centralized bureaucratic projects, but rather from individual labs."
In his remarks, Obama stressed the need for U.S. researchers to make discoveries to ensure that the economic returns from them remain stateside. "I don't want to see these discoveries made in Germany or India or China," he said.
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