Has the global brain race begun?

President Obama today unveiled details of what's being called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), a $100 million initiative to fund research into the human brain which administration officials are comparing to the Human Genome Project. The Times skeptically notes that unlike that project, the new initiative has " no clearly defined goals or endpoint", but it's still an exciting and ambitious project:

The effort will require the development of new tools not yet available to neuroscientists and, eventually, perhaps lead to progress in treating diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy and traumatic brain injury. It will involve both government agencies and private institutions.[...]

Three government agencies will be involved: the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. A working group at the N.I.H., described by the officials as a “dream team,” and led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University, will be charged with coming up with a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets.

Given the current climate in Washington, when even the pittance spent on political science research is considered an extravant boondoggle, it's not surprising that the president framed the new initiative in terms of international competitiveness:

"We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead. We have to seize them. I don't want the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or Germany. I want them to happen right here," he said.

Switzerland would probably have been the more appropriate country to mention, since, as several reports have noted,  the announcement comes just two months after the EU made its own major foray into Brain Mapping with a $1.3 billion grant for a 10-year project to build a neuron-by-neuron supercomputer simulation of the brain, which will be coordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne. The project is led by controversial neuroscientist Henry Markram, who has already had some success at simulating rat brains and will involve more than 80 research institutions from throughout Europe as well as Japan, Israel and other countries:

HBP-videoverview from Human Brain Project on Vimeo.


Markram has his detractors among other neuroscientists, who according to Nature, see his model as "grotesquely cumbersome and over-detailed" and believe his research has been overhyped by the media. But with over a billion dollars in funding, he's probably not sweating the criticism too much.

But he's hardly the only game in town. IBM announced success for its own increasingly sophisticated simulated brain project last November. And emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil have also been wading into cutting edge neuroscience research. The EU's billion dollar grant may not have directly inspired Obama's comparatively small commitment to Brain mapping, but from the age of exploration to the space race to the genome, history has shown that a little international competition -- with geopolitical bragging rights at stake -- has never been bad for scientific progress. 

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