In April, President Obama announced the Brain Initiative (acronym for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies”). The main goal is a better understanding of how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information, along with development of new technologies to map the networks of neurons underlying the brain’s activity. Ultimately, the information is hoped to provide insight into (and maybe cures for) neurological diseases. Vigorously promoted by Francis Collins, director of the NIH and some renowned neuroscientists, it could get $3 billion in funding, currently over $200 million is allocated for the first phase from both federal agencies and private partners. Many advocates of neuroscience are very supportive of the project and some discourage public criticism, despite the Initiative’s vague goals. This is understandable because in a time when so many solid research programs have experienced funding cuts, this initiative looks exciting and courageous.
But the problems of the Brain Initiative plan should be scrutinized even before it gets underway – far more than science policy is at stake. The goals reflect misplaced optimism in the economic benefits of “big” pure science research and a misreading of similarities with profitable ventures like the Human Genome Project.  Engaging useful private sector competition – which underwrote the successes of the HGP – is harder in this instance. The Brain Institute is less likely to create quality jobs than the Administration’s confidence warrants. And its time and financial constraints aren’t compatible with profoundly difficult research. Enthusiastic praise and comparisons to the Apollo Project, and the Human Genome Project, should garner even more skepticism than they do now from anyone with either good investment sense or training in neuroscience.
In light of the recent debates (such as this one) about the continuing relevance of neuroscience, I offer this disclaimer: In my book and other writings I’ve weighed in on the uses and abuses of neuroscience. But I think – as almost any scientifically literate person does – that neuroscience remains a critical field inquiry, regardless of its recent hype and misapplication. I’m not criticizing the point of brain mapping or developing new technologies for a holistic understanding of the brain. But big, publicly-funded endeavors like this need more specific, time-efficient goals, and less hype about the next frontier in science.
First , what about comparisons to the Genome Project? Advocates compare the Brain Initiative to the Human Genome Project in its probable economic and scientific payouts. Other analysts have already scrutinized the benefits of the HGP so far in clinical medicine. Some fact-checked excessive claims about its return on dollars invested. Regardless, the Human Genome project was an unqualified success. It engendered competition between the public and private biomedical sectors in which the latter performed astonishingly well. And it offered various new avenues for economic growth, from sequencing centers to personalized “genomic” medicine. Investors interested in the private side of this private public-partnership might be encouraged by the parallels that the Administration draws between the Human Genome Project and the Brain Institute. Isn’t this new initiative the neuroscience equivalent? Unfortunately, it’s not.
Could any project centered on improved brain mapping and neural recording be analogous to the mapping of the chromosomes of human DNA? No. The HGP had a very specific set of goals and had already defined the technologies used to achieve them. Competition, we must recall, was very useful to the HGP. It kept the methods streamlined and readied the healthcare markets for innovations based on the sequencing technologies. Some useless and overhyped but others lifesaving. And it didn’t drag private companies into the publicly-funded health bureaucracy, a crucial point from an economic perspective. Goals in neuroscience at the level of brain mapping are ill-defined and outnumber resources in hard-to-imagine (for most investors) ways. The HGP engendered private competition because of the finite goal and the clear endpoint of research – the sequencing of base pairs and the mapping of the human genome – at which time the new technology could be applied to programs in pure and clinical sciences. Everyone from malaria researchers to archaeologists could find something relevant to their field. Conversely, the Brain Institute is funding, above all, a search for technology that may – or may not – be useful to many subfields of neuroscience, much less to other disciplines. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s not analogous to the single type of technology involved in the genome sequencing efforts. This is open-ended. We have excellent reasons to believe brain-mapping is a necessary step towards integrated study of neural functions, but it’s far from sufficient to the treatment of anything and not the only clear candidate for a major long-term project.
Next, there’s the matter of the timeline, which limits what the Brain Institute can accomplish. A decade seems long to even the most earnest venture capitalists or tech investors. Really, though, it’s not much time when you consider publication times, the turn-around on failed experiments, and the labyrinth of approvals for grant allocation. Furthermore, in neuroscience, complexity of the main object of study obscures how quickly or slowly progress can be made. A full brain-activity map is not going to be created in a decade. It might not be created in a century, particularly when one considers that such a map exists only in a transient state in any specific brain at any time. There’s no way that this project can have a reasonable guarantee that the needed technologies will be invented and developed, much less in a decade.
Brain mapping technologies are very diverse in cost, method (i.e. using functional MR imaging, molecular biology techniques, microscopy), and level of analysis (whether they look at individual neurons, groups of cells, entire functional brain regions, animal models , etc). Even within the specific areas that fall under the category of “brain mapping,” technologies require vastly different laboratory capabilities and technical proficiencies. One area of expense which many investors and funding boards are dimly aware of is the cost of what is called neuronal recording. This is a process where probes record the electrical activity of a neuron, one neuron at a time. It is currently essential for mapping neuro-electrical activity, and is – along with functional brain imaging and electrophysiology – one of the three main tools for studying neural activation in the brain. Consider though, that it is done neuron by neuron. Painstaking. The goals for the Initiative are protean: exuberance has already been trimmed down since April due to costs and feasibility. 100 trillion connections made by nearly 100 billion neurons make up the network activities within the human brain; initially advocates of the White House plan were speaking about mapping, well, all of them.
A goal in cognitive neuroscience is to record millions of neurons simultaneously, but at present technology only several hundred can be recorded at once. The Brain Initiative plans to fund a giant push forward where equipment allows a million neurons to be recorded simultaneously. A worthwhile goal but one that will exceed by far the current funding for the project, let alone the amounts likely to be allocated for it.
Then we come to the issue of funding sources. The Brain Institute will also have to reconcile very different funding sources, not all of which have overlapping goals. Public funding and private institutional investors who all want different types of “usable” data and new technologies are likely to run into conflict over allocation of resources. This is particularly true when even the government bureaucracies contributing to the Institute have sometimes conflicting interests in research outcomes. The private-public partnerships involved and major organizational investors reveal that funding is coming from “varied” sources (read: “conflicting research priorities). Sure, there’s the quality and generally level-heading funding supervision coming from the National Institutes of Health. But DARPA is also weighing in with a pledged $50 million to study PTSD, memory loss, and aspects of traumatic brain injury. The Salk Institute, another partner, has a similar plan of interest in mapping neural networks and how they function in health and disease. One strains to imagine that DARPA and the Salk institute have many shared research goals, whatever the public rhetoric. Somehow the Salk institute’s interest in memory loss is likely to prioritize different questions than the DOD’s. Funding conflicts shouldn’t be ruled out, and can cause delays.
The Institute’s job creation is touted as a benefit to the national economy. This is doubtful if any of the current NIH funding model is considered. Reasons for skepticism should include the fact that much of the work in laboratories is done by underpaid graduate students, lab technicians, and post-docs, and that expansion of the program won’t necessary mean hiring lots of new scientists in newly created jobs. It will largely consist of re-allocating funds to existing labs. Outside of the possibility of new HHMI and other private grants, one struggles to see where quality, full-time jobs with benefits will be emerging from this project, particularly over the next decade. Some of the students trained in participating labs will go on to find work in biotech and pharmaceutical companies, but this is true of existing laboratories across the nation now and there’s little reason to think the skills involved in a vast brain mapping project will be more marketable than, say, those of a x-ray crystallographer or a mouse geneticist are now. This project will fund the same types of marginal and under-paying employment that well-qualified researchers – many victims of a glut in graduate school positions – are already stuck in. (There is an argument that some of the technology could introduce jobs creating and implementing new medical devices, but the project is still too theoretical permit guesses about what direction the research will take).
This is all quite negative. Next article I hope to look at financially and scientifically concrete alternatives within the private sector, and discuss better ways that pure science can create jobs.
 For a survey of criticism of the project from various angles, press coverage includes http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2013/04/08/the-brain-initiative-bam-or-bust/