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Understanding the human brain

Mapping to take many years, cost many billions

By The Mercury

The $100 million that President Barack Obama proposed recently for the so-called Brain Activity Map project is modest in the extreme — both in terms of the money that will be needed and the scope of the project he envisions. But it’s a start,  and given the concerns about almost any federal spending, even that might be a tough sell.

Formally known as the BRAIN initiative — for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — the project’s ambitious goals involve mapping the human brain in, the president says, “an effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.”

That, clearly, is worth doing. But the treatments, preventions and cures the president seeks won’t be discovered with only the proposed $100 million, which would be shared by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known simply as DARPA. The federal investment, however, would leverage substantial contributions from a variety of sources, including companies, foundations and philanthropists.

Mapping the brain will be a monumental undertaking, much more complicated than mapping the human genome. That historic endeavor, which identified the human body’s genetic instruction kit, was completed in 2003 after more than a decade of research. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the government spent $2.7 billion on it.

Mapping the human brain and its 85 billion to 100 billion neurons will call for technology and tools that have yet to be developed.  As Dr. Rafael Yuste, a Columbia neuroscientist, told the New York Times, “For a human, we must develop new techniques, some of them from scratch.”

Even if the costs run well into the billions of dollars, they would pale compared to the costs of brain diseases. A study by the Rand Corp., for example, estimates the costs of treating dementia at $157 billion to $215 billion — a year.  Breakthroughs that could allow Alzheimer’s patients to become more independent would save considerably in future health care costs.

Add to that scenario the financial and human toll of Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, autism and other conditions, and the Brain Activity Map project becomes a good investment, even if it costs much more than the Human Genome Project did.









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