US President Barack Obama has announced the second of two high-profile initiatives designed to improve our understanding of the brain. Both projects may completely revolutionise the treatment of brain disorders such as epilepsy
In an announcement from the Whitehouse several days ago, Barack Obama unveiled an ambitious research project to map the human brain. The project is intended to dramatically improve our understanding of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s and transform approaches to treatment.
The initiative is called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN). President Obama has compared it to the Human Genome Project. The project was a huge initiative that successfully mapped every gene in the human body. It significantly advanced our understanding of genetics. President Obama intends BRAIN to do the same for neuroscience.
The project will explore how brain cells interact with each other and how information is recorded and processed in the brain. It is hoped that this exploration will also help us understand how activity in the brain is linked to the way we behave.
President Obama said in his announcement: “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than the atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3lb of matter that sits between our ears.
“There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked and the BRAIN initiative will change all that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and learn and remember. That knowledge will be transformative.”
The BRAIN initiative will be carried out by public- and private-sector scientists. Obama’s administration has pledged a $100m investment to the project, which will begin in 2014. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) are involved in the project. So are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Meanwhile several private-sector organisations have also committed funding to the initiative. These include the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which pledged $60m a year to the project. Similarly, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies pledged $28m.
Aside from the medical and scientific discoveries expected from the BRAIN initiative, President Obama hopes that it will also stimulate the US economy.
The Human Brain Project
During his announcement, President Obama also mentioned making sure that the US keeps up with the scientific advances being made in Europe. The BRAIN initiative appears to be partly inspired by a similarly ambitious project on European soil.
The project is called the Human Brain Project (HBP). It is a huge research project that includes 86 different European institutions and will cost an estimated €1.19bn. It will span an entire decade, running between 2013 and 2023.
The project has very similar aims to the BRAIN initiative. www.humanbrainproject.eu states that “understanding the human brain is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st Century science. If we can rise to the challenge, we can gain profound insights into what makes us human, develop new treatments and build revolutionary new computing technologies.”
The project has several specific goals, the first being to compile all existing knowledge about the human brain. This compiled data will be used to create a virtual brain simulation in a supercomputer.
This simulated brain will be incredibly detailed, basically acting exactly as a real human brain would. This simulation can then be used to improve our understanding of brain disorders like epilepsy. It will also help us understand how the brain works in a general sense – hopefully leading to new approaches to computing and robotic technologies.
The second aim of the HBP will be to create six new research ‘platforms’ designed to improve global research in a range of areas. These platforms include the ‘Neuroinformatics Platform’. This will bring together data and knowledge from neuroscientists around the world – and makes it available to scientists elsewhere for use in their research.
The ‘Brain Simulation Platform’ brings together computer models of the human brain and identifies gaps in our knowledge about it. This highlights what research still needs to be done. Meanwhile, the ‘Medical Informatics Platform’ brings together clinical data from around the world and allows scientists to search for biological signatures of conditions like epilepsy.
The HBP is intended to have a hugely significant impact on the development of a variety of sciences and technologies. The ethos of the project is to learn these technologies from our own bodies.
The supercomputers built by humans are increasingly complex and – the more complex they become – the more power they use. Eventually this becomes unsustainable – but our bodies have no such problem.
As the HBP website states, “The brain manages billions of processing units connected via kilometres of fibres and trillions of synapses, while consuming no more power than a light bulb.”