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What the Quest to Map the Brain Tells Us About Government-Funded Science Revolutions

Three years in, President Obama's BRAIN Initiative gives us an anatomy of the research "moonshot."
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(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This week marks the end of Brain Awareness Week, an effort led by the Dana Foundation to promote brain research worldwide. It also brings us near the three-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neuroscience Initiative (or BRAIN)—the granddaddy of three life science projects that have punctuated Obama's second term.

Obama announced BRAIN in April 2013 with sweeping plans to revolutionize neuroscience by mapping how brain cells and their connections interact "at the speed of thought." BRAIN was followed last year by the Precision Medicine Initiative, which aims to use huge amounts of data from research volunteers to develop personalized treatments and make that individualized approach more common in medicine. This year, Obama launched perhaps the highest-profile initiative: the Cancer Moonshot, led by Vice President Joe Biden, which aims to condense a decade's worth of advances in cancer research into five years, on a modest budget.

All three programs are heirs to the now-completed Human Genome Project, which revealed the sequence of every human gene. So far, of Obama's initiatives, only BRAIN has been around long enough to tell us: What does it look like, right now, when the government tries to revolutionize an entire field of science?

The short answer: These new efforts are decentralized, play the long game, and quietly call for comfort with uncertainty. Since BRAIN's launch, it has funded projects in five different federal agencies and dozens of large foundations, universities, private research institutions, and companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Google. Initially, the biggest funding recipient was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—an incubator wing of the Department of Defense that brought us the Internet (and in the public imagination is often building cyborgs). But now, the bulk of the BRAIN money goes toward the National Institutes of Health, which should receive $195 million in funding for the 2017 fiscal year. (Science at this scale is expensive—that's less than one percent of the NIH's total proposed $33.1 billion budget.)

"We have very limited understanding of the hardware and software that drives the computations that allow us to think and to move and have feelings."

BRAIN seeks to lay the groundwork for treating and curing chronic conditions: mental-health disorders that are emotionally, physically, and financially costly, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's that will increasingly devastate the world's aging populations, according to Ned Talley, a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. But because the brain is so intricate—it's often called the most complicated object in the universe—a comprehensive understanding will almost surely take longer than our lifetimes.

"The human brain is thought of as the universe's greatest computer, and the reality is we have very limited understanding of the hardware and software that drives the computations that allow us to think and to move and have feelings," Talley says. That's why the initiative's short-term benchmarks can sound somewhat anticlimactic outside the research community. By 2021, for example, researchers hope to create a full index of brain cells—but not in humans; in rodents, which have 21 million neurons on average compared to our approximately 85 billion.

In other areas, the approach is much like throwing a bunch of (well-aimed) darts at the biology board. Another BRAIN ambition is to improve on current gold standard technology for investigating brain activity: functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, the much-lauded technique that captures images of the brain in action. Researchers want still more precise images, both in terms of the time scale and location of brain activity, and are looking at everything from the brain's self-produced magnetic field to electrical probes implanted in its blood vessels to get there. "Each of these strategies is risky in its own right," Talley says. "If it weren't, somebody would have already done it. But we expect that, by funding a diverse set, we'll get a few that produce real breakthroughs."

This particular project to improve on fMRI reflects one of the initiative's other major strategies, Talley says: prioritizing the development of technology as a means of investigating the finer points of the brain's biology. A technology-first approach is widely considered to have driven the successes of the Human Genome Project, Talley claims, which, if nothing else, gave scientists a much larger pool of genetic data to access and ushered in an era of research produced by massive, collaborative committees. But that approach is not without criticism. Some researchers have fretted that the raw data on human genes is too difficult to translate into medical improvements; others argue that the focus on hard data has come at the neglect of factors besides genes that influence disease, like lifestyle and environment.

The earliest critiques lobbied at BRAIN included that it would monopolize research funding, undermining smaller neuroscience projects pursuing valuable questions outside the tailored focuses of the federal program. Money indeed remains a concern for science programs, even though bipartisan support for neuroscience funding itself remains strong, Talley says. Congress has funded BRAIN every year at just below the initial budget laid out in 2013, according to Cori Bargmann, a neurobiologist who helped update BRAIN's goals in late 2014. Even so, Democrats are currently battling in the Senate to make NIH funding mandatory, or guaranteed. If those efforts do not go through, the bulk of the NIH's funding—including money for all three of Obama's moonshots—will have to be reviewed anew each year.

"Over the last decade, the purchasing power associated with the NIH budget has declined substantially," Talley says. "When we look at the overall spending, the investments that we make for research are a minute fraction of what we spend on our own health care."

So while we seem to have entered an age of huge, government-funded life science research programs, these initiatives may still have to fight their way to get to the "Moon."