Obama's BRAIN Initiative to cost far less than Human Genome Project

President Obama’s brain-mapping initiative, for which he has proposed $110 million in federal funding for 2014, will focus how on how the brain is affected by conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and autism; how it produces memories and programs human behavior; and what treatments could lead to cures for post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and other neuropsychiatric afflictions.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative is modeled after the Human Genome Project of the 1990s and early 2000s. In that effort, the federal government  partnered with philanthropies and scientific entrepreneurs to identify and characterize the nearly 25,000 genes that make up human DNA.

But at $110 million, the pot of funds earmarked for the BRAIN initiative is minuscule compared to the Human Genome Project’s $3.8 billion federal investment — and far smaller than earlier reports predicted the initiative would command.

Most of the money will come from private sector partners such as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which together have promised to provide $168 million in annual support.

But it could still face opposition from budget-cutters on Capitol Hill. With that in mind, the Obama administration emphasized that every federal dollar spent on the Human Genome Project went on to generate $141 in economic output.

The BRAIN Initiative is expected to create jobs in such high-tech industries as nanotechnology, prosthetics that respond to human thought patterns, diagnostic imaging and information storage and processing.

“It is bold, it is audacious, it is going to take quite a few years,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which will parcel out some $40 million in research funds.

In addition, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency will administer $50 million of the BRAIN Initiative’s research funds, focusing on “understanding the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrating breakthrough applications based on these insights.”

The National Science Foundation is to distribute $20 million to fund research that will link brain research to related work in the physical, biological, behavioral and social sciences.

The White House will also assign the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues the task of exploring the ethical, legal and societal dilemmas certain to arise as brain science advances.

The federal government’s financial commitment to brain research is modest compared to some expectations, which had set a price tag as high as $3 billion on the brain-mapping initiative Obama had hinted at in his State of the Union speech.

Still, the formal unveiling of the plan drew jubilant praise from groups engaged in brain research.

“The coming years will be a period of breakthrough discovery in brain science," said Society for Neuroscience President Larry Swanson. The coordinated efforts of scientists working on project "will help scientists make profound discoveries and understand relationships between genes, individual brain cells, circuits of cells, behavior, and disease."

At the same time, Swanson and others cautioned that such lofty goals would not come cheap. Nor would they be met if funds dedicated to the project are the object of yearly political budget haggling.

"Great future potential means today’s critical seed funds must be backed by sustained, robust investment in the scientific enterprise in the coming decade," he said. "This includes consistently increasing funding for NIH and the National Science Foundation, where investments across all the sciences are essential to decipher the mysteries of the brain and apply new advances."

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