The PJ Tatler

Feds May Fund Ambitious New Brain Study

How much would it be worth to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease? What about developing new therapies for mental illness? Would advancing the ball on artificial intelligence be worth spending tax dollars on?

And do we really want to understand the origins and meaning of consciousness itself?

Scientists have proposed creating a gigantic project to literally map the brain — a 10 year effort “seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics” as the New York Times avers.

The project, which could ultimately cost billions of dollars, is expected to be part of the president’s budget proposal next month. And, four scientists and representatives of research institutions said they had participated in planning for what is being called the Brain Activity Map project.

The details are not final, and it is not clear how much federal money would be proposed or approved for the project in a time of fiscal constraint or how far the research would be able to get without significant federal financing.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government should “invest in the best ideas.”

“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said. “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”

Story C. Landis, the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said that when she heard Mr. Obama’s speech, she thought he was referring to an existing National Institutes of Health project to map the static human brain. “But he wasn’t,” she said. “He was referring to a new project to map the active human brain that the N.I.H. hopes to fund next year.”

Indeed, after the speech, Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, may have inadvertently confirmed the plan when he wrote in a Twitter message: “Obama mentions the #NIH Brain Activity Map in #SOTU.”

A spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy declined to comment about the project.

In a time of severely restricted budgets, the president is probably not going to get all that he wants in funding this project. That’s a shame. The potential for this project to revolutionize science and, indeed, our understanding of the essence of our humanity — consciousness — is the kind of thing that the federal government should support.

This is pure research. It’s the sort of thing that coprorations can’t or won’t touch because there is no guaranteed pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We know that there will be a payoff — as with the Human Genome Project — we just can’t put a finger on exactly where it will be. All that is certain is that whatever tax dollars are spent, we will see a healthy return on that investment in the form of new jobs, and perhaps even new industries.

Additionally, the cause of advancing human knowledge is always a worthy goal. It’s why we spend money on launching rockets carrying sophisticated instruments into space to study the mysteries of the universe. Whatever ancillary commercial benefits accrue from the space program, seeking the answer to the questions of the cosmos is a valuable — some would argue even necessary — function of government.

Congress should give this proposal serious consideration.