Obama launches BRAIN Initiative

*subhead*Therapy or control?*subhead*
Obama has announced his latest project, the BRAIN Initiative. BRAIN is short for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Hinting at this $100 million project (to start) in his State of the Union address, Obama pronounced:
“If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas... Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy... Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s… Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”
This "Next Great American Project" seeks to map the activity of the human brain. Not a small endeavor, which means there is no projected end. We know practically nothing about how the human brain works. As neurobiologist Lesile Vosshall tweeted when she heard about Obama's plans, "Baffled by the NIH Brain Activity Map Project. We don't understand the fly brain yet."

Initially the project will focus on improving technologies to study the brain. What we have now simply cannot give us a picture of how the brain's 100 billion neurons work together.

Putting the wisdom of spending money on such research in a time of sweeping budget cuts aside, this initiative may give us a better understanding of devastating conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and schizophrenia. (I say "may" because some scientists are skeptical that big government initiatives are the best way to forward progress. Some believe that such big interventions hurt rather than help. UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote on his blog. "I think it is now clear that big biology is not a boon for individual discovery-driven science. Ironically, and tragically, it is emerging as the greatest threat to its continued existence.")

Beyond budget and possible therapeutic discoveries, there are a couple of red flags with BRAIN. Big, shiny, flashing ones.

The first one that caught my eye was on the BRAIN web page. The largest contributor to the $100 million fund is DARPA, short for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the Department of Defense. DARPA was founded shortly after Sputnik was launched. You know, the time when the U.S. was caught with our pants down and the Space Race ensued. DARPA's mission, displayed in huge font on its website, is "Creating and Preventing Strategic Surprise."

Call me paranoid but I don't think "creating strategic surprise" has much to do with curing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and schizophrenia.

Next, under the "possible long term outcomes" section, along with the laudable goals of treating Parkinson's and creating jobs, I spotted this outcome: "Reduce language barriers through technical advances in how computers interface with human thought."

What?!? It does not say "in how computers mimic or understand human thought." It says "interface." This smacks of Ray Kurzweil's dream of the Singularity where we can connect the human brain to computers and possibly upload our conscious into the digital realm.  Trust me when I say that "reducing language barriers" is not the end game there.

Thinking that I might just be reading into things, I did some digging and I am not alone. In Esquire, Luke Dittrich wrote about what he suspects is the "template" for the BRAIN Initiative published in the journal Neuron. There BRAIN is called "The Brain Activity Map Project." Dittrich found references to "small wireless microcircuits, untethered in living brains, for direct monitoring of neuronal activity." The authors mention that these microcircuits would join with our neurons for "recording and possibly programmable stimulation."

Dittrich connects the dots:
Let's be clear about what that means: These probes they envision injecting into human brains will not only be able to record the firing of vast networks of individual neurons, but will possibly be able to control the firing of those individual neurons as well....

The Brain Activity Map Project wants to understand how our brains do what it is that they do, but it just so happens that the technology the project will develop to gain this understanding could also be used to make our brains do whatever they want. Wirelessly. From a distance. The truth is, most major scientific breakthroughs, like the human minds that give birth to them, have light and dark sides. And some of those dark sides are darker than others.
This whole thing makes me nervous, but not because Obama is trying to find out more about the brain. I am nervous because our society does not understand the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic interventions on the human person.

It is laudable to try and understand how our brain works to cure disease. But I am certain that discovering therapeutic advances is not the only aim of BRAIN.

The Catholic Church has clearly drawn a line between therapy and non-therapy in genetic engineering and I think the same would apply here. Drawing and sticking to that line allows for pursuing medical advances without the threat of the "darker sides." The health and integrity of the human person should always be the goal. Technologies that could be used to go beyond therapy to enhance (or control) the person should be limited to therapeutic uses only.

We can make that distinction, embracing the good and eschewing the bad. It is time to pray that BRAIN does as well.

Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly


  1. These projects and the decisions that may result from scientific discoveries should not be in the hands of government, whose motivation is not the welfare of the citizenry but power and control.

    I used to work for biotech and genomics research companies. Believe me, if this "brain" project has a useful benefit to mankind, then it has a profit potential (medicines or brain therapy for example). If it has a profit potential then venture capitalists will fund it. If they fund it, scientists, doctors and psychologists who are bright and cutting edge will be eager to work in the field. My experience, and of course this is a personal view, is that these people are motivated by finding treatments and improving life, and also advancing their scientific knowledge. The motivation of the venture capitalists is to eventually create things that can be sold in the marketplace. This creates an atmosphere that is open and positive, with lots of communication and interaction between different fields, in academia, business, technology and humanitarian interests. This is highly stimulating and productive, in contrast to government which is stifling, secretive and out of touch. The govt has a hidden agenda in this Brain project. By contrast, in the private sector the attitude is one of exploration and discovery.

  2. Ha! he's getting back at Dr. Carson.

    Obama is gutless. He will continue underhanded attacks even after his personal praetorian's attacks have no effect on his "enemies." And he won't let go. He can't throw a fit; after all, he's a grown man. So he'll just George Constanza it to death.

  3. Cocaine use grows new nerve endings to accommodate the stimulation overload!!!....They don't go away!!! A little "gift"! from the drug!!!

    Obama may have fried his own brain....

    Smokes.....alot!...ahhh,...those nerve endings.

    Maybe that is why he needs so many get away vacations....can t stand it!....has anyone ever seen him do any "real" work! I mean really hard brain work?...to me he sounds like a pre-scripted wonk that codependent on a teleprompter!

    I have it!...he wants his brain to interface with the teleprompters!!!...please, ad lib!....

  4. Most research in the USA is from the DoD. They need to find ways to get rid of the great excess of money they get from congress, so they don't get cut. Our university is around 35% funded by DoD research projects. Harmless, but in no way useful to defense, war, much of anything. But if they're writing checks, well take it.

  5. This technology has been under development for over a decade. As an undergrad at UofM in the Materials Science program, I worked with a professor in a lab building brain probes for testing inside rabbits. Tiny microchips were painstakingly mounted to electrical wiring attachments and coated in a conductive hydrogel. The idea was to coat the probe with a gelatin so the brain cells could grow into and accept the implant. We had some successes in the rabbits- were able to read electrical potentials across the circuit inside the animals head. Of course many animals died or rejected many of the probes, but this is the early 2000's when the technology was primitive. The resolution is low on these probes though- it's by no means at a neuron level capable of reading actual thoughts. They could see what regions of the brain are most active at a certain time and possibly use the probes to excite areas of the brain they wish to stimulate. However, I personally believe that "Matrix" like programming and reading of the mind is going to be very far off.

    Basically, what I mean to say is, this technology is already here. The brain mapping is just the next phase to determine where to strategically place the probes. After that, scientists will soon be able to stimulate certain parts of the mind or read which areas are most active during certain patterns of thought.

    Just my 2 cents, from a former undergrad lab rat.


    1. S,

      Do they use "LSD" in brain maping studies?..assists in cell membrane permeability?.......if you know please reply,....

      ........Thanks,..... Donna M:)

  6. Donna,

    Wouldn't know. We worked on the electrode technology only. I'm sure there were a few people in Ann Arbor still experimenting with it though! Just not anyone in the lab...


    1. S,....Thanks!

      .......let's pray it's still a long way away!

      Donna M


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