Obamas New Initiative to Map the Brain: Realistic or Idealistic?

A New Goal Emerges

Last month, President Obama announced the start of new project: the BRAIN Initiative to map the Human brain. According to Obama, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative aims to “do for the human brain what the Human Genome did for genetics.” To kick it off, Obama has allocated $3 billion towards the entire project of wide-spread neuron mapping, starting with $100 million in the first year, which he plans to split between the NIH (National Institute of Health), DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency), and NSF (National Science Foundation).

Why Global Mapping?

Why has Obama taken on this initiative to map the entire brain? According to Dr. Collins, director at the NIH (National Institute of Health), “the reality is we cant afford not to;  [we] dont want to stifle innovative thinking.” The scientific answer to this question is that our current available imaging techniques only allow for local mapping of neural circuits and connections—interactions between a few specific neurons in a targeted area, compared to all of the connections throughout the brain  (Saucan, 2008). Although these techniques have allowed us to discover some of the neuronal circuits underlying perception and sensation, our inability to create a global map leaves much room for error in what we think we know. Discovering a global map of these neuronal circuits therefore opens the door to a multitude of potential scientific advances, like the circuitry contributing to our perception and sensation, and—more importantly—the circuitry underlying diseases and disorders, such as PTSD, Schizophrenia, Alzheimers, and Parkinsons Disease.

What then, are the Problems?

Many scientists see this new incentive as potentially groundbreaking, but others see it as too ambitious, nearing unrealistically idealistic and somewhat erroneous in our current economic situation. Either way, the idea is excellent but there appears to be a few hurdles that need be jumped for the initiative to actually work:

1) Steep Taxes inhibit Sucess

According to the Wall Street Journal article by Gregory Sorensen, the BRAIN Initiative is actually hurt by a policy enacted in
Washington on Jan. 1. According the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the medical-technology industry is subject to a $30 billion annual tax on medical devices, making the “generous” $3 billion gift from Obama somewhat ridiculous.

The Reality

Over the past few years, we have definitely seen an increase in obsessive medical testing—in other words, with increased innovation, comes increases in unnecessary, wasteful, and expensive testing. But, taxing these companies at such high prices—although a smart attempt to combatting these issues—is actually decreasing the number of available jobs, and slowing down the rate of innovation.

As of Jan. 1, medical device manufacturers have already paid up to $450 million in taxes. Additionally, the Pacific Research Institute estimates the “health law’s medical-device tax will reduce American medical research and development by $2 billion a year, and the Manhattan Institute says the tax will cost 146,000 American jobs.” So then truly, how can science benefit from this initiative? According the Sorensen, “This tax decelerates and devalues innovation at the very moment when medicine is on the verge of historic breakthroughs. It is foolhardy to believe that the medical-technology community can spark new innovation while the government is overtaxing it.”

2) No Glia Mapping

In an article published in the Scientific American, Douglas Fields-neuroscientist at NIH- elaborates on a major problem with the BRAIN Initiative: the complete ignorance of non-neuronal cells in the brain, specifically Glia.  Glia are supporting cells with a variety of functions, from myelinating a cells axon, to regulating neuron-to-neuron communication. Furthermore, our current understanding of Glia is severely lacking compared to our understanding of neurons.

The Reality

By ignoring the role of Glia and other non-neuronal cells in the BRAIN Initiative, we are literally no better off than we were in our attempts at local mapping. By completely disregarding cells that we do not even fully understand, we cannot obtain a comprehensive understanding of the brains’ connections and their relationship to behaviors and disorders. Thus, we definitely cannot implicate any of the connectivity we do find as key to a particular disease, disorder, sensation, or perception. Similarly to completing only the boarders of a puzzle, we need to map all connectivity components to truly find solutions.

Good or Bad Idea?

These two considerations shine light on the idea that Obamas motives might not have been solely science-based. According to Obama, we are “giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action; a better idea of how we think, learn and perceive,” but without enough money and cell types, can we truly hope accomplish this feat?

Obama states we “don’t want the next discovery to happen in India or China or Germany; we want it to happen in America; that’s what this initiative is about.” I understand the reasons behind this goal- pushing money and thus jobs into the economy- but “mapping the brain” might not be the most efficient way to achieve this goal. Unless the proposal for the BRAIN initiative is re-clarified and the tax attenuated, it looks like this endeavor might just be too idealistic.

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One thought on “Obamas New Initiative to Map the Brain: Realistic or Idealistic?

  1. Do we want to stifle innovative thinking? Would we recognize innovative thinking about the how the brain works if it ran right over us? What is the difference between innovative research, an innovative search for research funds, or a company established to assist in spending the hundred million? How do we differentiate mandated paths to solutions versus the scientific exploration for information? Is the “mandating” of piecemeal solutions the most effective approach to understanding a complex system? Since when does science search by absolutes, prescriptions, and mandated imperatives rather than by possibilities and probabilities? Perhaps we can facilitate innovative thinking by using scientific language that is logically consistent with the probabilistic world in which we live (Mind Code: How the Language We Use Influences the Way We Think).
    Charles E. Bailey, M.D.

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