Obama administration wants to map the human brain

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With a nod toward the importance of strides in healthcare technology, the Obama administration is planning a long-term effort to examine the human brain and build a map of its activity. The project is being compared to the Human Genome Project in a recent New York Times article.

Slated to be unveiled as early as March, the project will be a collaboration of federal agencies, private foundations and neuroscientists and nanoscientists, all looking "to advance the knowledge of the brain's billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness," according to the Times.

Advances in artificial intelligence and increased understanding of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, among other illnesses, are among the goals set for this project--which potentially could cost billions-of-dollars. It is expected to be part of the president's budget proposal in March, and a few researchers have said they'll be part of the "Brain Activity Map" project, according to the Times.

President Obama, in last week's State of the Union Address, said brain research is an example of how government should "invest in the best ideas."

"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy--every dollar," Obama 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."

The project, if successful, could lift the economy; according to the Times, a federal government study of the Human Genome Project, which cost $3.8 billion, returned $800 billion in federal impact by 2010, 20 years after it began.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, recently developed a publicly accessible Internet-based collection of data which identifies a region in the brain where thousands of gene-regulating elements necessary for cognition, motor functions are emotions are found.

Axel Visel, a geneticist with Berkeley Lab's Genomics Division who worked on the latter project, referred to it as "a genome-wide digital atlas of gene enhancers in the human brain."

"Understanding how the brain develops and functions, and how it malfunctions in neurological disorders, remains one of the most daunting challenges in contemporary science," Visel said. "This enhancer atlas will enable other scientists to study in more detail how individual genes are regulated during development of the brain, and how genetic mutations may impact human neurological disorders."

To learn more:
- read the New York Times report

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