Why Obama's BRAIN Initiative Is Important

Current brain imaging technology cannot unlock the mysteries of the human mind.

Posted Apr 03, 2013

“There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge will be transformative.” - Barack Obama

On April 2, 2013 President Obama unveiled a $100 million public-private initiative to map the brain. The initiative is called BRAIN which is an acronym for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. The BRAIN Initiative will help scientists gain greater insights into how we think, learn and remember at a neural level. It will also give us a better understanding of how to treat diseases ranging from autism to schizophrenia.

Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said that BRAIN will bring together experts from industry, academia and federal agencies in neurotechnology, neurosciences and neurology to unlock the mysteries of the brain. The team will be led by two neurobiologists: Cornelia "Cori" Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford Medical School. Bargmann and Newsome were both contributors on the fascinating Charlie Rose: The Brain Series with Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel of Columbia University.

 President Obama describes the BRAIN Initiative: 

"As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.

But today, scientists possess the capability to study individual neurons and figure out the main functions of certain areas of the brain. But a human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections. So Dr. Collins says it’s like listening to the strings section and trying to figure out what the whole orchestra sounds like. So as a result, we’re still unable to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s or autism, or fully reverse the effects of a stroke. And the most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with.

So it won't be easy. But think about what we could do once we do crack this code.  Imagine if no family had to feel helpless watching a loved one disappear behind the mask of Parkinson’s or struggle in the grip of epilepsy. Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home. Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct and triggered by what's already happening in the patient's mind."

Goals of the BRAIN Initiative:

  • Understand how brain activity leads to perception, decision making, and ultimately action.
  • Develop new imaging technologies and understand how information is stored and processed in neural networks.
  • Provide the knowledge for addressing debilitating diseases and conditions.
  • Produce a sophisticated understanding of the brain, from individual genes to neuronal circuits to behavior.

Potential outcomes of the BRAIN Initiative:

  • Better understand the mechanisms underlying disease like Alzheimer’s, Autism, and Parkinson’s and inform improved treatments, preventions, and possibly even cures.
  • Reduce language barriers through technological advances in how computers interface with human thoughts.
  • Develop solutions to prevent, treat, or even reverse the harmful effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury on returning war veterans.

Current brain imaging creates a sketchy map.

My father was a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon who grew frustrated by the limitations of current brain imaging technology. Even the most advanced brain imaging machine called an fMRI only gives scientists a thumbnail sketch of what is going on between billions of neurons. At a neural level, an fMRI is akin to taking a satelitte picture of earth and trying to ascertain the interconnections occuring at street level in neighborhoods and cities based simply on bright spots on a global map.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) became the dominant brain mapping research tool in the 1990s. The concept of fMRI is simple: increased blood flow is coupled with the activation of neurons in that area of the brain. An fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region increases and the fMRI measures the energy used by brain cells. 

Although the fMRI is our most advanced brain imaging technology it is rudimentary in many ways. For example, the blood flow change measured in an fMRI is localized to within 2 or 3 mm which may as well be miles away when measuring synaptic gaps. And, the fMRI readings have a lag of a few seconds between a thought and a reading which makes it impossible for the machine to map our brains at the speed of thought.


The BRAIN Initiative has stirred up a lot of controversy. Before anyone rushes to judgement, I believe it's important to give Cori Bargmann and William Newsome time to put together their "dream team" and  build the scientific infrastructure to be able to ask the right questions. This initiative is still in its formative stages and awaits budget approval from Congress. As Cori Bargmann said in a recent interview: "To crack the code of the human brain, it's best to keep an open mind." 

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