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The biggest mystery

Obama’s brain mapping project has ambition. For now,it lacks a plan

Written by The Indian Express | Published: April 4, 2013 12:17 am

The human brain is the “most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe”,according to Nobel laureate James Watson. To help understand it better,US President Barack Obama unveiled a $100 million brain mapping project earlier this week,fittingly called BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).

The BRAIN initiative,whose closest analogue is the Human Genome Project (HGP),is scanty on detail. The goal is to develop new tools to map neural circuits,with the assumption and hope that learning more about how the brain functions will enable us to treat neurological and degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. According to its proponents,mapping every electrical spike in every neuron in the brain will enable neuroscientists to understand the microcircuitry that underpins everything from perception to memory to movement. At least part of the challenge is to build on existing technologies so the huge amounts of data generated can be stored and analysed,and this is discounting that new instruments for mapping will have to be created.

But just like the HGP — which cost $2.7 billion and was an unarguable success — BRAIN has its critics. Sceptics point out that unlike the HGP,the specific scientific goals of this initiative remain unclear,and that it is more likely to aid technology development rather than contribute to genuine scientific advancement. There is also concern that federal funding for BRAIN will divert resources away from individual labs. Given that the project lacks a plan,concrete objectives and timelines,perhaps the naysayers have a point. Yet,the era of big neuroscience is already with us,with at least three similar projects running. If they work,the results could be transformative.

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