Mapping The Brain: Big Science’s New Everest

Last week, President Obama announced the “BRAIN Initiative,” a 10-year project to map the human brain. BRAIN, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, will bring together scientists from private and public institutions to investigate how the brain’s 100 billion cells interact with each other. Many researchers believe that brain mapping could unlock the secrets behind complex diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism.

But while some scientists praise the effort, others have criticized it as having little chance of success — at a price tag of $100 million in 2014 and up to $3 billion over the next decade. “We don't understand the fly brain yet. How will this come to anything?” tweeted Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, in response to the president’s initiative. The recent budget sequester has heightened calls to rein in the massive project.

From the Manhattan Project to the Space Race to the War on Cancer, Big Science has consistently given us extraordinary breakthroughs with a positive return on investment.

These views ignore the history of federally coordinated research programs. “Big Science” endeavors create jobs, boost the economy, and, most importantly, generate knowledge that saves lives. They tell us that brain mapping is an investment worth making.

There are uncanny links between BRAIN and another Big Science initiative — the Human Genome Project. The Genome Project, the endeavor to decode our DNA, also began as a $3 billion decade-long effort by government institutes and private foundations. In 1990, a cohort of scientists dismissed it to The New York Times as “unthought-out,” “hyped,” and “insulated from the fray.”

Today, such claims couldn’t be farther from the truth. Data from the Human Genome Project have improved our understanding of everything from medicine to evolution. By searching the human genome database, scientists are developing targeted therapies for diseases such as cancer faster than ever. Biotech companies have used the data to create genetic tests that can show predispositions to illnesses such as breast cancer and liver disease.

The Human Genome Project also provided a significant boon to the American economy. According to a 2011 report by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, the venture led to nearly $800 billion in overall economic growth-- $141 generated for every dollar invested. These gains came from 310,000 new jobs, innovations in biotechnology and the creation of genomics-enabled industries. Because of its economic impact, the Battelle Practice called the Genome Project “arguably the single most influential investment to have been made in modern science.”

The Human Genome Project is no outlier. From the Manhattan Project to the Space Race to the War on Cancer, Big Science has consistently given us extraordinary breakthroughs with a positive return on investment. This is the promise that the BRAIN Initiative offers.

Certainly, the outcomes of the BRAIN Initiative are unclear. No scientist can say for sure what brain circuit maps will reveal, and what the applications will be. But ambiguity is the norm rather than the exception for Big Science. Scientists in 1990, for example, had no idea what trillions of bytes of genomic data would tell us. Some thought most of it would be junk. Others thought all of it would be. But a certain few knew that the potential of the Human Genome Project was immense. These researchers also knew that only the government in collaboration with private agencies could provide the resources and coordination for such a large endeavor.

Experts believe that BRAIN has similar potential. A 2012 roadmap of the project in the journal Neuron reports that deciphering connections between brain cells could lead to earlier diagnoses and novel devices for complex brain diseases. That is why many patient advocacy groups like the Alzheimer’s Association stand behind President Obama’s plan.

Brain mapping could also create entirely new industries, just as other Big Science initiatives have. The Neuron roadmap anticipates that many of BRAIN’s applications lie at the intersection of biotechnology and nanotechnology — two industries with markets already exceeding $350 billion worldwide. New technologies that could emerge include 3D imaging techniques and computer systems that mimic the connections within the human brain.

George Church, a Harvard geneticist heavily involved with both the genome and brain mapping endeavors, thinks that BRAIN may even have a leg up on the Genome Project. For one, Church believes that disease impact and cost reductions will occur earlier in the BRAIN Initiative because of existing technology: “Clinical applications of measuring brain activity already exist, while there was no such context for the Human Genome Project when we first proposed it in 1984. [BRAIN] will integrate modeling and testing from the start.” Existing technologies could allow the BRAIN Initiative to learn from and even outperform the Human Genome Project.

It is difficult to estimate the full impact of President Obama’s brain mapping initiative. But if the history of Big Science tells us anything, it is that the BRAIN Initiative’s enormous potential for patients, researchers, and the economy should outweigh initial uncertainty. Fifteen years from now, scientists could talk about brain maps the same way they do about genomes and aerospace. That is reason enough to make this investment.


This program aired on April 9, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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