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April 2, 2013

Obama outlines human brain-mapping initiative

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday outlined a government-sponsored initiative to map the human brain, casting the proposal as a way to discover new cures for neurological disease and strengthen the economy.

"Ideas are what power our economy," Obama said in announcing the proposal from the White House East Room. "When we invest in the best ideas before anyone else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anyone else does."

The project would use about $100 million in federal money over the next fiscal year to begin a long-term effort to better understand the brain. Those funds will be included in Obama's budget proposal, scheduled for release next week, and will be combined with annual private-sector investments of roughly an equal amount.

Obama has spoken frequently during his presidency, including in his most recent State of the Union address, about using federal money in partnership with academia and business to foster projects with broader economic and social benefits.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative represents one of Obama's most ambitious efforts to do so.

Obama cited the computer chip and the Internet as projects that began with government help, and he cited Alzheimer's disease, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by American troops as afflictions that could be better understood, if not cured, through this initiative.

"As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mysteries of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears," Obama said.

Obama's proposal, and the budget it will be a part of, comes as the federal government struggles with the effects of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect last month. On Tuesday, he again called for those cuts to be reversed, warning that they threaten to stifle innovation for a generation of young scientists.

 "We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead," he said.

Much of the federal money - about $40 million would pass through the National Institutes of Health over the coming fiscal year.

At the same time, four nonprofit foundations have committed their own money to be partners in the program: the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Another $50 million would be allocated to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon department that pioneered the Internet.

Under the proposal, the National Science Foundation would receive about $20 million over the next fiscal year.

According to the administration's outline of the program, those funds would be directed toward research that explores the activity of neural networks, invests in the data-analysis projects needed to sift through the large volume of information scientists expect to gather, and examines "how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain."

 

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