Updated March 24 at 12:29am
health care

U.S. brain-mapping initiative involves Brown neuroscientist


WASHINGTON – A potential $3 billion federal initiative is in the works to create a “brain activity map,” similar to the Human Genome government effort that mapped all the genes in human DNA, according to scientists familiar with the project.

The plan was first hinted at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, when he said: “Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s,” saying that brain research is among the next job-creating investments in science and innovation.

The idea, according to Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue, who has been involved in planning the project, is to organize a national effort to show how the brain functions at its deepest levels.

Donoghue directs the Brown Institute for Brain Science and is the principal investigator of BrainGate. He said that the brain-mapping project would hopefully lead to answers about how various neurological ailments might be better treated. The effort, to be funded under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, is expected to be officially unveiled in March.

Donoghue described the project to the Providence Business News as “a national effort to develop the tools to study the brain, to understand how it works – things like conscious and perception, language, the basis of mind.”

The effort will involve three groups of neuroscientists, he continued: those who can make the nano-engineering tools, those who can conceive and conduct the experiments, and the theoreticians that study the computations of the brain and its millions of neuron interactions.

The genesis of the idea came about after Donoghue, as part of a group of leading neuroscientists, met with White House officials to discuss creating such an initiative. An official announcement of the project was expected to be made in March, according to Donoghue.

The $3 billion figure emerged from George M. Church, a Harvard University molecular biologist who is also involved with helping to plan the brain-mapping project. Church described the economic impact of such a project to be very large, comparing it to spending on the Human Genome Project, which was about $300 million a year for a decade, according to Church.

Donoghue cautioned against projecting what the actual dollar amount will be, saying: “Because this hasn’t been announced, we don’t know what will be allocated.”

But in terms of Providence, Donoghue was optimistic that the city’s burgeoning neuroscience hub will benefit from the initiative. “The work describes what we do well – what’s going on at Brown, at the hospitals, at the VA, potentially in collaboration with URI,” Donoghue said, “These objects overlap closely with the work being done here. This could be something very exciting for Rhode Island.”

The financial awards will be done through the usual competitive mechanisms, he continued. “But we should be a highly competitive position to [capture a share] of these funds.”


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