In a lead article in today’s New York Times, we learned that the Obama administration is planning a 10-year scientific project to study the workings of the human brain. The proposal, which may be announced as early as March, will include efforts to map the functions and activities of the billions of neurons in the human brain, much like the Human Genome Project.

The Brain Activity Map project, as it has been called, is said to involve both federal and private agencies and foundations. A meeting was reportedly held at the California Institute of Technology on January 17th, and included nanoscientists and representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. The project is being organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to what was reported, and will probably cost upwards of $3 billion over the next decade. During his State of the Union address, Obama advocated federal spending on brain research and development. As pointed out by the Times article, Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, may have unwittingly confirmed the research project in a tweet: “Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU.”

In any case, we will soon learn about the proposal and its possible benefits. The effort promises to advance technologies for treating conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, while also improving the various therapies for a range of mental illnesses. If the project comes close to the economic boost of the Human Genome Project, it would also provide needed economic benefits for the country.

One also can’t help but imagine the possibilities that might surface from such a large scale, multidisciplinary mapping of the brain–particularly in our technology-driven economy. As pointed out by the Times, the meeting at Caltech suggested that we might see a series of “brain observatories” that would function like planetariums of the mind. And one wonders if Google is envisioning a kind of “Google Street View of the Brain” for our future internet wanderings.

© 2013 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D.

Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D., teaches at both the University of Utah School of Medicine and the Department of Educational Psychology.

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