President's bioethics commission meets to discuss BRAIN project

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The Obama administration is investing aggressively in a new project to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

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Copyright 2014 Reuters
Copyright 2014 Reuters
Speaking before a room full of scientists in April 2013, President Obama announced the new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The project "aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders." Copyright 2014 Reuters

Speaking before a room full of scientists in April 2013, President Obama announced the new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The project "aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders."

"There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember." President Barack Obama

"The long-term consequences of more brain knowledge — whether it's good for an ethnic group or threatens your personal identity — there's sort of no one in charge of that." Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center

On Aug. 19-20, 2013, President Obama's commission on bioethics met in Philadelphia to establish ethical standards for the BRAIN project. The meeting takes place following the news that MIT neuroscientists were able to implant false memories in mice.

"Think of people who do ethics as the fellow in the parade who follows behind the elephant and cleans up. We'd like to at least walk alongside the elephant." Thomas Murray, professor emeritus of the Hastings Center

A major theme of the Aug. 19-20 meeting was that scientists and ethicists do not communicate enough, particularly at the planning and starting phases of research.

The administration hopes the BRAIN initiative will advance treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other forms of mental illness, and may even help in the development of artificial intelligence. The research could cost billions, so government support is crucial in carrying it out.

"Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding, by reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research into expanded medical research, including the expedited mapping of the human brain. It's great science." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

"We don't understand the fly brain yet. How will this come to anything?" Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University

Some have criticized the project's ambition and potential cost, saying the initiative will pull from other, more important research.

As a point of comparison, the Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion. It started in 1990 and completed its goal of mapping the human genome ahead of schedule, in April 2003. The project returned $800 billion into the economy by 2010, according to a government study.

"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar… Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation." President Barack Obama

Obama named brain research as one of the ways the U.S. should "invest in the best ideas."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing brain implants that may help restore "task-based motor skills" -- such as tying a shoe -- to people who have suffered brain damage, Bloomberg reports. The technology could treat some of the 280,000 troops who have sustained brain injuries since 2000.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has elaborated on what projects it will fund through Obama's BRAIN initiative in a December request for applications. They include the development of technologies and methods for dealing with collections of cells that act as "circuits." Another calls for new non-invasive imaging technologies.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a brain implant aimed at restoring memory in wounded soldiers and sufferers of conditions such as Alzheimer's Disease, officials announced in late April. The four-year project is part of Obama's BRAIN initiative.

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