The Obama administration has announced plans for a new Brain Activity Map Project. The 10-year project will look at the brain and construct a comprehensive map of neural activity with the aim of understanding how the brain, including consciousness works.
According to The New York Times, the project, which is expected to begin in March, will involve federal agencies, private foundations, teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists. The scientists will be working to unravel how the billions of interconnected neurons of the brain work in concert to generate perception, thought, feelings and consciousness.
The project is also aiming to provide insight into the causes and treatment of neural disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and mental illnesses. The project organizers also hope the results will make major contributions to the development of artificial intelligence.
The ambitious project may cost up to $3 billion over a decade. The New York Times reports it is expected that it will be part of the president's budget proposal next month.
The Human Genome Project, the last major federal government financed project, cost $3.8 billion. A federal government study on the impact of the Human Genome Project found that it paid back $800 billion by 2010. The project which commenced in 1990, aimed at mapping the entire human genome, was completed ahead of schedule in April 2003.
The Brain Activity Map Project is made possible, experts say, by the development of new technologies that allow scientists to track active neurons in the brain. The latest advances have spurred new pioneering projects, but a lot remains to be learned about the brain and how it works.The complexity of the brain with its estimated 100 billion neurons form an electrical circuitry which scientists have only just begun unraveling given that previous study techniques were mostly intrusive.
But recently, neuroscientists announced that they have developed new technologies that will allow observation of brain neural circuitry in less invasive ways. According to The New York Times, in June, a team of scientists proposed new approaches to constructing a model of brain circuitry function using molecular nano-machines that act as sensors and record brain activity at the cellular level.
Promoters of the new project are hoping that it will bring benefits to the health sciences comparable to the benefits that genetic research derived from the Human Genome Project. The New York Times reports that George M. Church, a Harvard University scientist who was involved in the Human Genome Project and is now also involved in the Brain Activity Map Project, said: "The Human Genome Project was on the order of about $300 million a year for a decade. If you look at the total spending in neuroscience and nanoscience that might be relative to this today, we are already spending more than that. We probably won’t spend less money, but we will probably get a lot more bang for the buck."
Possibly in an effort to convince skeptics ahead of the unveiling of the Brain Activity Map Project, Obama, in his last State of the Union address, delved into the benefits of the Human Genome Project, saying: "Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation."
According to The New York Times, scientists, including Church and Ralph J. Greenspan of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, wrote: “Not least, we might expect novel understanding and therapies for diseases such as schizophrenia and autism.”
Scientists involved in the Brain Activity Map Project say it presents greater challenges than the Human Genome Project. The New York times reports that Dr. Greenspan, said: "It’s different in that the nature of the question is a much more intricate question. It was very easy to define what the genome project’s goal was. In this case, we have a more difficult and fascinating question of what are brainwide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?"
The Office of Science and Technology Policy will be organizing the project, with the participation of the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation.
Private foundations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle will also be involved, The New York Times reports .
The Obama administration's brain study project is not the first brain mapping effort. According to Phys.org, a recent press release from King’s College announced the college was participating in an international effort to build a complete supercomputer simulation of the brain drawing on the best research knowledge of how the brain works.
The New York Times, however, says that Obama's project is different from the $1 billion European project aimed at building a "silicon-based brain." The European project has been criticized as based on knowledge which is still largely incomplete.
The new project and its possible ultimate purpose has not escaped the attention of anti-federal government conspiracy theorists. Zap2it blog reports that "Big Brother theorists" are already worrying that a federal government "Terminator" machine "is on its way to becoming a reality."