Obama unveils BRAIN Initiative – to be helmed by Newsome and Bargmann


Obama announces new $100 million BRAIN initiative This morning, President Obama announced his highly anticipated and much debated new initiative for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or BRAIN)  to invest in "transformative" new technology that may one day allow neuroscience researchers to map the vast, dynamic patterns of brain activity with unprecedented detail.

The initiative (which prior to today's unveiling had been widely referred to as the Brain Activity Map project) involves $100 million in federal funding matched by around $120 million in annual funding from private sector partners. You can check out the White House's infographic which breaks it all down for you.

Obama kept the press conference light for the most part, wishing that NIH Director Francis Collins had sung his introduction and deprecating his own grades in science classes while accepting the title of "Scientist in Chief". He explained the impact of the project by comparing brain activity to a symphony orchestra (one of my favorite metaphors) and pointing out the need to listen to the whole ensemble rather than one instrument at a time to truly appreciate the music. He waxed poetic about the importance of federal funding for basic science, calling it "an engine for growth" and took the time to lobby against the Sequester-driven cuts to research funding which, he said, would "hold back a generation of young scientists."

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Of course, despite all the hope and excitement, this project is not without its vocal detractors. In fact, I note that this announcement was carefully not made yesterday, because the scope of what Obama is talking about might lead some to cry 'April Fools!'

Many skeptics complain that Big Science initiatives such as this are largely for political spectacle and will take away attention and funding from more productive incremental science being done by more artisanal researchers. I recommend a thoughtful piece by Gary Marcus blogging at the New Yorker on this debate.

However, doubters should take heart – as the Times reported yesterday, the NIH working group responsible for the logistics and implementation of the project will be lead by our own Bill Newsome and Rockefeller's Cori Bargmann:

Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the N.I.H., described by the officials as a “dream team,” and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.

The initiative exists as part of a vast landscape of neuroscience research supported by billions of dollars in federal money. But Dr. Newsome said that he thought a small amount of money applied in the right way could nudge neuroscience in a new direction.

“The goal here is a whole new playing field, whole new ways of thinking,” he said. “We are really out to catalyze a paradigm shift.”

Brain researchers can now insert wires in the brain of animals, or sometimes human beings, to record the electrical activity of brain cells called neurons, as they communicate with each other. But, Dr. Newsome said, they can record at most hundreds at a time.

New technology would need to be developed to record thousands or hundreds of thousands of neurons at once. And, Dr. Newsome said, new theoretical approaches, new mathematics and new computer science are all needed to deal with the amount of data that will be garnered.

In the spirit of a team of rivals, it is fantastic, in my opinion, to appoint as leaders of this heady initiative two scientists who even the most sceptical have got to respect for their sober judgement and unimpeachable scientific rigor.

Dr. Bargmann also happens to be on campus today to give the McCormick Lecture in LKSC's Berg Hall at 4pm. Bill will probably be there. You should be there too, with all your questions.

What do you think of this project? Excited by new neurojobs, or wary of too much hype about what can be accomplished? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!