Thank you, President O-BAM-A! Yours truly, the Neuroscience Community

in News
February 25th, 2013

Whether you’ve read an article, listened to the radio, watched the news, or heard from a friend, I’m sure you already know that President Obama and his administration have been planning to enrich our future as mind and brain enthusiasts. However, if you have been under a rock, studying for midterms, or working (way too much), you may be asking – how? Well, do you know the whole Human Genome Project thing? How it revolutionized genetics? Just like geneticists who were able to map the complete human genome by 2003, neuroscientists will be given the goal of more fully understanding the human brain by building a map of its activity.

Therefore, with a decade-long, billion-dollar Brain Activity Map (BAM, hence O-BAM-A) project, the Obama administration will likely indirectly result in ten years of high dopamine levels throughout the neuroscience community (awaiting results on statistical significance). Scientists hope that the BAM project will be included in the president’s next budget proposal, with up to $3 billion in funding over the proposed ten years. Further, they expect that the project will – as many journalists, bloggers, and the like have been saying – do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

Initial view of categories on the data portal gene search at the Allen Institute for human brain microarray data

According to the age old saying, “With great brainpower comes great BAM prosperity.” But where will this brainpower be coming from? Apparently, federal agencies as well as private foundations and teams of nanoscientists and neuroscientists plan to put their brains together to ensure that the project will be carried out successfully. Included in the project are the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Before I go into more detail, I just want to clarify that the BAM project is distinct from the static brain study by NIH (mentioned in the New York Times article, Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain) and also from the Brain Atlas project by the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

One major goal of the BAM project is to not only develop the technology necessary to study diseases and discover new and improved therapies for mental illnesses, but also to advance artificial intelligence. However, a big problem with studying the brain is doing so non-invasively. In an article from Neuron, The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics,” Yuste et al. suggest several approaches to solve this problem. For example, synthetic DNA could be used to measure and store brain activity on molecule-size sensors. To find out more about connectionism, check out our blog this Friday!

You may be wondering – why is the government pushing for this project? Other than possibly helping to save their own family and friends, this project could create jobs, capture the interest of the general public, enhance the reputation of the United States as a leader in science, and even boost the economy. The project could stabilize the careers of current neuroscientists and create opportunities for aspiring students. But how will the money be spent? Some scientists are concerned about needing to consider ethical problems more intensely while still others doubt the project could reach completion in ten years, or in infinitely many years. Studying simpler organisms first, for example to ensure newly developed technologies work, may be required. Nevertheless, many are hopeful, seeing this project as a stepping stone to fully understanding neuroscience and to demonstrating the importance of such research to our future.

So, what are the numbers? Considering the Human Genome project again, which cost around $3.8 billion, the government ran a study only to find that by 2010 nearly $800 billion had been pouring into the economy over the ten years since its inception in 1990. The government, then, expects this project to help boost the economy as well.

On January 17th, at a meeting at the California Institute of Technology, three government agencies, neuroscientists, nanoscientists, and representatives from Microsoft, Google, and Qualcomm decided that there will be enough computing power to support the project. Additionally, they suggested the creation of “national brain observatories.” I suppose we will have to wait until March to find out more about these observatories as well as more scientific and financial details.

So, for now, mind and brain people, get thinking, learning, and working, and, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address, let’s “invest in the best ideas!”


First Ever Brain “Atlas” Completed – National Geographic

The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics – Neuron

Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain – The New York Times

Allen Institute for Brain Science

Brain Project Draws Presidential Interest – Science

Connecting the Neural Dots –The New York Times

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