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Obama asks Congress for 'BRAIN Initiative'

Project aims to find cures for epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's by mapping human brain.

Last Modified: 03 Apr 2013 11:53
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Effort may help understanding of diseases affecting 100 million Americans that cost $500 billion each year [Reuters]

President Barack Obama has proposed an effort to map the brain's activity in unprecedented detail, as a step toward finding better ways to treat conditions as Alzheimer's, autism, stroke and traumatic brain injuries.

"We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

- Barack Obama

He asked Congress on Tuesday to spend $100 million next year to start a project that will explore details of the brain, which contains 100 billion cells and trillions of connections. 

The amount  is a relatively small investment for the federal government, less than a fifth of what NASA spends every year just to study the sun, but it is too early to determine how Congress will react.

Obama said the so-called BRAIN Initiative could create jobs, and told scientists gathered at the White House that the research has the potential to improve the lives of billions of people worldwide.

"As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away,'' Obama said. "We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.''

'Pretty good start'

The idea, which Obama first proposed in his State of the Union address, would require the development of new technology that can record the electrical activity of individual cells and complex neural circuits in the brain "at the speed of thought,'' the White House said.

Obama wants the initial $100 million investment to support research at the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. He also wants private companies, universities and philanthropists to partner with the federal agencies in support of the research.

And he wants a study of the ethical, legal and societal implications of the research.

The goals of the work are unclear at this point. A working group at NIH, co-chaired by Cornelia "Cori'' Bargmann of The Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, would work on defining the goals and develop a multi-year plan to achieve them that included cost estimates.

The $100 million request is "a pretty good start for getting this project off the ground,'' Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health told reporters in a conference call.

"The effort should allow researchers to understand such complex diseases as epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, traumatic brain injury and a long list of conditions "that collectively affect 100 million Americans and cost us $500 billion each year in terms of healthcare costs."

While the ultimate goal applies to the human brain, some work will be done in simpler systems of the brains of animals like worms, flies and mice, he said. "New understandings about how the brain works may also provide leads for developing better computers" Collins added.

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