During his last State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama briefly touched on the idea of the US Federal Government funding a program for a Brain Activity Map (BAM). Basically, signals sent by every brain cell would be recorded so we can better understand the circuitry of human thoughts, feelings and emotions. (1) The implications of successfully completing a project like this are enormous – from advances in everything from medicine to artificial intelligence (AI). The project is, supposedly, the next logical scientific progression for the US after the strides we made in cancer research in the 70’s and the human genome project of the 90’s.
Of course, instead of the President selling this program with examples of potential benefits to mankind, the message immediately became about the positive economic impact a program of BAM’s magnitude could have. For example, for every dollar spent on the human genome project (on which BAM would be modeled) it, “returned $140 to our economy.” .
With some $3.8 billion spent over 13 years, the resulting gene-based boon turned out to be $796 billion in new jobs, medical treatments, increased salaries and other benefits, according to a 2011 analysis conducted for the federal government.
Scientists on the BAM project are hoping for a similar investment from the Feds and an even bigger ROI (return on investment) for BAM.
What was unfortunately not explored by Obama during SOTU is the obvious hope those of us with mental illness or any brain disorder have about a such an initiative. Perhaps if we can understand the circuitry of the brain, there will be better diagnostics, treatment – and dare we hope – maybe a cure – for brain illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Alzheimer’s patients could also reap huge benefits.
After my initial spark of hopefulness faded, it took my medicated brain (I have Bipolar I) a few minutes to process why my gut is telling me this may not be the best way to go.
Before I ‘retired’ to move across the planet and sporadically write a blog, I was an IT Geek in a pretty nifty industry. So, after blowing the med fog to the side of my brain, the first coherent thought I had was, “Is the present technology anywhere near up to the task?”
After doing just a bit of digging, clearly the answer is, “no.” One piece of tech needed is the brain imaging tools that would allow scientists to observe cell recruitment functions at the low level necessary to observe circuits firing off feelings, memories, etc. It still needs to be devised. That’s a pretty tall order, and a pretty expensive one. Then there are the systems and software necessary to store, interpret and model the data. Those are probably in the works in some form or another, but I couldn’t find any evidence that’s truly the case. It’s not that these technological components can’t be developed. We have some of the best engineers on the planet in the good ol’ USA. But, Obama is right. In the end, it’s all about the money.
Unfortunately, there’s little hope that funding for this project will be approved in March when Congress votes on the 2014 budget. Since Congress couldn’t see their way clear to quickly approve disaster relief for the victims of Superstorm Sandy without arguing over pork and a whole lot of other BS. it’s unlikely a bold scientific undertaking is going to get any cash, especially in this time of austerity and the House being led by the GOP. Should BAM be approved, under one funding scenario, It’s estimated that 750 labs across the US will lose their grants for other projects. Here’s where the project loses me. Killing off scientific diversity is something I can’t ascribe to.
But wouldn’t it be great if the wheels were already set in motion for a project that would tackle brain mapping so that everything from better understanding of physical and mental illness to advances in AI would be a byproduct?
Wait – there just might be a way we can still look forward to a day when those of us with faulty circuitry can stroll into a Radio Shack for a replacement model.
The Human Brain Project is a one billion Euro effort being coordinated by Switzerland and has a somewhat similar goal to what the US is proposing:
The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. On January 28, the European Commission supported this vision, announcing that it has selected the HBP as one of two projects to be funded through the new FET Flagship Program.
It appears funding is already in place, ramp up is beginning this year and one goal of the program is to create e CERN for the brain. True, the HBT project is not promising the level of granularity BAM would like to achieve, but you have to admit, the EU is already leaps and bounds ahead in actually beginning their brain program. The HBT goal seems more attainable as well. If the US Congress can’t see its way clear to fund BAM, why not begin with assembling all available data on the brain first, and then advance to examining the minutia of brain circuitry and function at a later date?
Overall, this is an exciting time in brain research. We have some of the best minds (pun intended) on both sides of the world innovating to better understand the most complex organ in the human body. We are on the verge of creating the technology to do so, and who knows what other purposes that tech could be applied to in the end. Most importantly, think (pun intended) about how the quality of human life could be improved by better understanding our own brain.
Let’s pretend for one moment that the US Congress does approve funding for BAM and its full steam ahead in the US. I would really love to see this happen.
Maybe brain research could be the new Friendly Space Race. The US vs the EU (instead of Russia) and the new territory to be charted instead of the moon is the human brain. A bit of competition is good, right? It keeps everyone on their toes and the wheels in motion. Even if the end goals for BAM and HBP aren’t the exactly the same, having two active brain understanding projects can only turn out to be beneficial in the end.
1) Nerdier explanation of the BAM project from Wikipedia:
By using new non-invasive methods of electrophysiology derived from nanotechnology, in which synthetic DNA molecules will be used to store and report the sensed activity of single neurons, and combining them with methods of neuroimagingand neuroanatomy, participating scientists hope to map activity of each of the approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain