2013 Shaping up to Be a Huge Year for Brain Research

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Neuroscientists should be pretty happy right now. One major funding award for brain research has already been announced, and another is expected to come soon. Altogether, there is potentially 4 billion dollars on the table for projects aiming to understand the brain. Yes, 4 billion, with a ‘b’.

In January, the Human Brain Project won a huge FET Flagship funding award from the European Union, to the tune of 1.2 billion euros (1.6 billion dollars) over the next 10 years. One of the project’s primary goals is to integrate and analyze all of the existing neuroscience research and clinical data from around the world, so that researchers have fast and easy access to the most current information in the field. To give some perspective, a quick PubMed search of scientific papers with “human brain” in the title or abstract returned nearly 25,000 results. However, PubMed only indexes English language papers, funded from specific American agencies like the National Institutes of Health, so those 25,000 papers probably represent just a fraction of the data that the project will eventually sort through and organize. This is an absolutely massive undertaking.

Researchers have big plans for the data, too. To start, they plan to create a detailed computer simulation of the human brain. Our brains contain hundreds of billions of neurons, all wired together in countless ways, so developing an accurate simulation will require the project to build new supercomputers, more powerful than the ones we have today and parsimoniously designed following the architecture of the human brain itself. A simulated brain would shed insights into human development, learning, consciousness, neurological disorders, and practically anything else that they were curious about, all without subjecting animals or people to invasive experimental procedures. One planned line of research will investigate new neurorobotic technologies, which will lead to the development of mind-controlled prosthetics that can react and feel pain and pressure just like real limbs. That is so freaking cool, and if you disagree, you probably hate Star Wars.

Shortly after the Human Brain Project announced its funding award, the New York Times reported that the United States will also be funding a giant neuroscience research initiative, with the goal of building a comprehensive Brain Activity Map. Though President Obama has not yet formally announced the project, it is expected that it will receive 300 million dollars in annual funding for 10 years, similar to the funding for the Human Genome Project. The broad goal of the Brain Activity Map is to understand the functions and connections of every single component in the brain, from single cells to cognitive systems. To achieve that goal, scientists plan to develop new tools for monitoring and visualizing the brain, as current technology is either highly invasive (like single cell recording) or has terrible spatial resolution (like EEG) or is simply not a direct measure of brain activity (like fMRI). If anything can lead to development of better tools, I have to believe it’s an influx of 3 billion dollars.

There seems to be some outspoken opposition to the Brain Activity Map project, however. Some scientists feel like the goals of the Brain Activity Map are unrealistic, driven by unfair comparisons to the Human Genome Project. Others think that the goals of the Brain Activity Map aren’t clear enough. Some even oppose large funding initiatives in general, on the grounds that scientific discovery proceeds incrementally and not in spurts following funding increases. I see their points, but as a poor graduate student interested in neuroscience, I have a hard time agreeing with them: goals can be revised and clarified, and I can’t see how a big funding push could actually stymie scientific progress.

Even with 4 billion dollars in potential funding, there really is no guarantee that either of the projects will succeed. Both of them are incredibly ambitious, and both of them rely on rapid development of new technologies and tools. Still, the fact that both projects received huge funding awards this year speaks to the increasing stature of neuroscience in government spending around the world. I’m excited for the next decade. You should be too! Otherwise, like I said, you probably hate Star Wars.

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