BRAIN Initiative (née BAM) Made Officially Palatable

infographicIf you had any qualms about the media savvy of the proponents of the-project-formerly-know-as-BAM, you can now rest assured, because now “There’s an infographic for that.” And with that infographic, came a nice White House announcement, in which President Obama said all the right things about our national talent for “ideas [that] power our economy,” and how greater understanding of the brain could help people with Parkinson’s, epilepsy or PTSD (veterans, of course). The project is now called the BRAIN Initiative, a backronym awkwardly spelled out as Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, and for the moment it is conceived as a $100M project seemingly guided by the earlier proposals, but employing a dream team of scientists over the next year or so to define appropriate aims. Within the government, funding will be coming from NIH, DARPA and NSF, with collaborative efforts from private foundations like the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute. In a live feed twitter answer session, NIH head Francis Collins, reassured twitterverse interrogators (myself included) that funding would be from discretionary accounts and not from current research.  He also emphasized that the BRAIN Initiative would follow the open access model of the Human Genome Project (HGP) by striving to make quality raw data available online to all interested researchers, regardless of intellectual property concerns.

When the original trial balloon was floated, the budget was said to be comparable to the HGP, which was estimated to have cost near $3B over ten years, so many critics were deeply skeptical about the possibility of drumming up $300M a year for systems neuroscience without sucking the life out of everything else. With today’s announcement of a more modest budget and a presumptively open/competitive proposal process, some of the open hostility among the science twitterati has calmed, perhaps reflecting the opinion that if it’s a boondoggle, at least only a $100M boondoggle.

Personally, while I still think the timing for this sort of work is good, this funding level is much less likely to produce the sort of transformative innovation in the field that has been suggested by earlier versions of the plan. As I’ve mentioned before, the translational medicine line of justification for the project has always been the most tenuous, and at this funding level, that is even more true. Three billion dollars would not have solved the human brain in a way that would fix diseases like epilepsy, and $100M certainly won’t either. Even more than before, this continued strategy of promoting basic science on the promise of curing human disease runs a very serious risk of alienating the public from both pursuits.


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~ by nucamb on April 2, 2013.

8 Responses to “BRAIN Initiative (née BAM) Made Officially Palatable”

  1. “Even more than before, this continued strategy of promoting basic science on the promise of curing human disease runs a very serious risk of alienating the public from both pursuits.”

    I wonder if this is actually a risk. As I’ve mused before ( ) perhaps this is really the best way to do things. You can’t sell basic science on this level, so you might as well tell the white lie, cached in may-lead-to’s etc. I’d also emphasize that the fraction of the public that is even vaguely aware of this initiative is tiny, and only a fraction of those will protest when the deliverables are met. A lot of the sighing over the overselling angle is only happening among those of us already in-the-know about this sort of thing.

    • Interesting point. Maybe they know something we don’t. I just was thinking of it as similar to biomedical research reporting, where overstating results leads the public to discount findings.

      • frankly I’m not familiar with what the actual research on the topic is. my truthy sense of the matter is that, in general, the public still has a high trust in science and scientists. there are probably specific instances (like climate change) where there’s less trust or weird things going on. But I’ve never really seen good data on the phenomenon.

  2. I saw this infographic and although I am a lay-person and hadn’t had my morning coffee yet, a few things jumped out. BAM was about a brain map. BRAIN seems to be about the goal of developing tools and not much else. Also, now we are seeing specific brain disorders added to the propaganda: PTSD, Parkinsons, Traumatic Brain Injury. Lastly, one of my conspiracy theory fan buddies is having a field day with the inclusion of DARPA on this infographic. I’m going to need more caffiene to articulate why this just doesn’t feel right, but there’s definitely something weird going on whenever the White House issues anything with the word ‘bioethical’ in it.

    • The ‘mappiness’ of the original proposal was always a little unclear because the authors were trying to build on, without being redundant with, other projects that were much more about discovering spatial organization (and connectivity) in brains. The clinical justifications have also always been apart of the proposals, but also are the weakest argument for a couple reasons. First, the BRAIN-I has little chance to meet it’s proclaimed goals of monitoring the activity of many thousands/millions of neurons in animals (worm, mouse, etc) with $100M, and no chance in humans (given the invasiveness of the technology). There are important animal models for some human diseases that could be used, but using those results to improve the lot of suffering humans is not a problem that will be solved with recording more neurons. Second, diseases like Parkinson’s have, for good reason, generally been considered to be, at their root, cellular pathologies in which it is reasonable to try to solve the problem at that level, rather than the network activity level (though there are already brain stimulators to reduce tremor, and those sorts of ameliorative interventions could be improved by more knowledge of the activity patterns in the brain). As for concerned about DARPA’s involvement, they have funded neuroscience research for quite a while, some of it obviously tied to treatment (like TBI), some of it perhaps more sinister. In any case, it’s not something new with this proposal.

  3. […] and in fact I have agreed with some of the more serious criticisms of the project (such as overselling the connection to clinical medicine). I’m also just not a big fan of blogs as long-form flame wars, where authors try to show their […]

  4. […] of the central, and most misunderstood, goals of the BRAIN Initiative is to understand how brains represent information. But, when people talk about cracking “the […]

  5. […] that they are developing more inclusive planning procedures and that the funding mechanisms will not siphon off resources from other projects. They still can’t seem to figure out how to get Science to publish their white papers outside the […]

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