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The White House unveiled a sweeping new 100 million dollar initiative to map the individual cells and circuits that make up the human brain, a project that will give scientists a better understanding of how a healthy brain works and how to devise better treatments for injuries and diseases of the brain.
“There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked,” said President Barack Obama of the ambitious project unveiled at a White House ceremony packed with scientists.
Called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the program will be funded with an initial $100 million from the president’s fiscal 2014 budget, which the White House is slated to release next week.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the federally funded National Institutes of Health, likened the initiative to mapping the human genome, a $3.8 billion effort he helped to lead as former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
“The human brain is at the present time the most complicated organ in the known universe,” Collins said in a conference call. “We aim through this ambitious – some would call it audacious – project, to try to unravel those mysteries.”
Ultimately, Collins said, the effort should allow researchers to understand such complex diseases as epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and a long list of conditions “that collectively affect 100 million Americans and cost us $500 billion each year in terms of healthcare costs.”
The main thrust of the BRAIN Initiative “is to be able to study the brain at a large scale to see how lots of neurons work together to produce high-level functions like learning, memory and creativity,” said neuroscientist John Donoghue of Brown University. Today’s brain imaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, “can’t see the activity of individual neurons,” he said: “it’s like reading the newspaper at two arms’ length.”
Harry Johns, president and chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Association, said in a statement: “The federal government has realized incredible success when it invests in tackling challenges of this magnitude, and Alzheimer’s will be no different.”
Researchers said in February that the number of U.S. residents aged 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s would nearly triple to 13.8 million by 2050, drawing attention to the need for further study.