By Dan Vergano
Is a federal brain-mapping project just pie in the sky?
The White House will soon unveil a major initiative that would map human brain cell activity. The effort, under the National Institutes of Health, could be on the scale of the War on Cancer in the 1970s or the Human Genome Project of the '90s, which mapped the human genetic blueprint.
"This is not a project yet, it is more like an idea," says National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke director Story Landis. "The brain is the last great frontier. It's what makes us human, how we think, how we write poetry. And the burden of disease that affects the brain is pretty extraordinary."
Yet the bid has triggered disagreement among neuroscientists over whether such an effort is warranted or threatens other, more vital research. The fight comes amid intense competition for federal research grants among biomedical researchers, who have seen the National Institutes of Health's $31 billion budget stay flat in recent years after a period of doubling in the past decade.
"We are right on the edge of finding out really vital information about the brain," says Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue, who was part of the project team. "There are questions we can now answer that can only be tackled as a collaborative project," he says, not by individual labs.
However, other researchers such as Leslie Voshall of Rockefeller University in New York have criticized the ambition and potential cost."We don't understand the fly brain yet. How will this come to anything?," Vosshalll asked in a Twitter reaction Monday to word of the proposed project in The New York Times. If the projected $300 million annual cost (in the neighborhood of the federal Human Genome Project in the late 1990s) is taken from NIH's flat budget,she estimates, 750 lab chiefs would lose grants in universities across the USA.
The human brain contains some 86 billion brain cells, or neurons, which work together in networks to trigger our thoughts, feelings and actions. Similar to the Human Genome Project, the "Brain Activity Map" effort would be conducted at labs in coordinated fashion to first build brain imaging tools and then uncover these networks at the level of thousands to millions of cells. One goal would be to use new tools that allow scientists to see how recruitment of brain cells in these networks is tied to both physical and mental ailments, says Donoghue. "Just like astronomy where we don't have to see every star to understand how stars work but seeing many helps us understand them, we won't have to see every brain cell in a network to understand what is going on," he says.
"To my knowledge, no funding has been set aside yet," Landis says, adding that planning for grant proposals and the like also await development. NIH referred requests for comments on the cost of the project, proposed for a March rollout, to the White House Office of Science and Technology, which declined a request for financial details. The news comes ahead of President Obama's proposed 2014 budget and as politicians are fighting over federal budget cuts amid a still-struggling economy. Donoghue says he hopes the project would represent "new money", rather than cuts to NIH budget funds for other basic researchers, echoing the concerns of other scientists.
"The devil is in the details! It always is," says neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, by e-mail. "The project needs to make sense to those who care deeply about neurological disease and neuroscience."