NIH Blueprint: The Human Connectome Project

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Recommended Reading | April 2, 2013

The BRAIN Initiative: Van Essen provides perspective on NPR

NIH Director Francis Collins introduces President Obama at the BRAIN Initiative announcement. Credit:REUTERS/Jason Reed

Today, President Obama announced plans for a long-term project to map the human brain at all levels, from individual neurons to complex neural circuits, called the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). The President is proposing to devote $100 million to start the Initiative as part of his FY2014 Budget.

An excerpt from the NIH announcement on the BRAIN Initiative:

By accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies, researchers will be able to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.

HCP Co-PI David Van Essen was asked about his thoughts on the BRAIN Initiative by NPR’s Jonathan Hamilton in his story “Obama’s Plan To Explore The Brain A ‘Most Audacious Project'” that aired today on the program All Things Considered.

Van Essen is optimistic about the Initiative, but cautious about the BRAIN Initiative’s incredibly ambitious goal to understand the dynamics and function of all 100 billion neurons in the human brain. He says, that monitoring the activity of the entire brain at the neuronal level is much more likely to succeed in organisms with smaller brains “like mice and fruit flies, and other animals”, he adds, “but I honestly don’t think it will be realistic to have that kind of sensitivity for mapping the human brain”.

Van Essen also commented that mapping the human brain as outlined in the BRAIN Initiative will be much more difficult than the goal of sequencing the human genome was for the Human Genome Project, which was successfully completed in 2003. One big distinction is due to the inherently large differences between individual people’s brains, which will make learning about how the brain works much more complex, Van Essen says:

Whether you are talking about one individual human brain to another human brain, or one mouse brain to a monkey brain to a human brain, the differences are vastly greater than the differences in the genome.

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, who was present for the President’s announcement, and also was interviewed for the NPR story, acknowledges that the BRAIN Initiative is ambitious: “to understand how the human brain works is about the most audacious scientific project you could imagine, it’s the most complicated structure in the known universe.”

Despite its lofty ambitions, Dr. Collins is fully behind the Initiative’s promise for scientific advancement, adding, “Five years ago, this might have seemed out of reach. Five years from now, it will seem like we waited too late to take advantage of the opportunity.”