Critics take aim at Obama's proposed brain-mapping project

Some wonder whether this is the best use of limited federal funds
Tools

Not everyone applauds President Obama's plan to invest $3 billion to map the human brain.

Some researchers worry that the project lacks clear goals and, with possible sequestration looming, could consume money that could fund a series of smaller projects, according to an article in The Atlantic. University of California-Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, for one, has argued against such so-called "Big Science" projects since his involvement with the huge "junk" DNA research project ENCODE, the article says.

The decade-long brain science project, to be unveiled in March, is expected to be a collaboration of federal agencies, private foundations and neuroscientists and nanoscientists. Its goals include advances in artificial intelligence and increased understanding of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, among other illnesses.

Rather than adding billions of dollars to that already being spent on neurological research, the project aims to improve technology to make neural research less expensive and more effective, NBC News reports.

To begin, researchers have to develop the tools to examine the brain, starting with research on a series of simpler species, according to a New York Times article.

Beyond technical and scientific issues, there are concerns around storing the data, ethical concerns about use of the data and uncertainty about whether timelines set out in the project can be met, with the current state of research so far from the proposed goal, the Times reports.

"I believe the scientific paradigm underlying this mapping project is, at best, out of date and at worst, simply wrong," Donald G. Stein, a neurologist at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, told the Times. "The search for a road map of stable, neural pathways that can represent brain functions is futile."

Obama, in his State of the Union speech, compared the plan to the 13-year Human Genome Project.

"After the genome project, we brought the cost [of whole-genome sequencing] down by a million-fold," Harvard geneticist George Church, one of the researchers who proposed the Brain Activity Map Project last year, told NBC News. Advanced technologies could bring savings on a similar scale to brain research, he said.

Just last month, researchers from the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced a publicly accessible internet-based atlas of brain activity that identifies a region in the brain where thousands of gene-regulating elements necessary for cognition, motor functions are emotions are found.

Meanwhile, the European Union has announced that it will invest 38 million Euros (more than $50 million) in collaborative global research projects related to rare diseases.

To learn more:
- find the Times article
- here's the Atlantic story
- read the NBC News post

Related Articles:
Obama administration wants to map the human brain
Researchers create an online "atlas" to the human brain
European Union plans big investment in global collaboration on rare diseases