What happens to the dollars spent in the BRAIN initiative.
Can money buy us happiness? Probably it can; if we measure happiness materialistically, as in a trinket at the corner store or a trip to our favorite landmark across the world. If we want to spend more than we have, it generally is recipe for disaster in itself. Now consider how much money we can invest in scientific research that will help us become happier. Think about the way research could make us healthier and smarter – just by studying the brain. Should there be a realistic cap to this amount? In the eyes of one political party in the United States, this is definitely the case – while their opposing party is for all out spending, if it results in more advancements in our knowledge of the disease, and perhaps, in novel methods of treatments too.
Unlocking a three-pound heavy mystery
My expertise is in the field of brain imaging. And there is nothing that strikes closer to the heart than the Presidents BRAIN initiative. For those unaware, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative is a public-private partnership to spend many hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars to ‘unlock the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears’. If history is any marker of achievement, the success of this initiative should be a no-brainer. For those in my age-group, the success of the Human Genome Project is fresh in our minds. It was a $4 billion investment, and per available records, there is about a $140 return for each dollar invested.
But why is their skepticism within the science community for this project? Why is their apprehension about the amount of money that’s possibly going to be spent on this? Are all these criticisms valid? Parsing through advances in literature should give us hope with respect to how far we have reached with regards to understanding the human brain, but at the same point make us pause and ponder as to how much farther we really have to go. What kind of expertise do we really need to achieve this goal?
Mapping the brain: from worm to man
The human brain has roughly a billion neurons (the cells of the nervous system) and may be about a trillion synapses (connections between two neurons). For comparison sake, consider the nematode worm which has 302 neurons and about 7000 synapses. To date, with all the advancements seen in neuroimaging technology and the development of supercomputers to process Terabytes of data, the nematode is the only organism whose entire brain connectivity has been mapped. For animals up the food chain, we do have connectomes for the mouse retina and the visual cortex. It takes many scientists with inter-disciplinary expertise, from biology to computer science, and many months to generate such data.
These above-mentioned advances do give us a glimpse of the many already developed neurotechnologies which eventually may aid scientists in better understanding the human brain. The best example is the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to image the anatomy and also measure changes in brain activity during performing a task in healthy and diseases patients. Optical imaging techniques like conventional 2-D intrinsic optical imaging or advanced microscopic methods like 2-photon microscopy and optical coherence tomography are beginning to take center-stage for understanding brain activity at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolutions, respectively. All of these developments require scientists with expertise to build on the basic laws of Physics.
Searching for consensus about the brain´s blood flow
Despite the progress made, there are a couple of areas of concern. First, there is the lack of consensus in some of the mechanisms of how our brain functions, and second, there is the new report on the cracks underneath the surface with respect to current levels of federal funding available to research labs across all universities in the country.
Consider the example of neurovascular coupling (that’s what I work on) – a mechanism that explains the increase in blood flow to a part of the brain following any activity. For example, when you see an object or view something on your screen, you can see an increase in blood flow or blood volume in your visual cortex using optical imaging or fMRI. The current disagreement -a better word is probably a lack of consensus- between the various labs, is the role of neurons and astrocytes and their coordinated functioning that causes the increase in blood flow.
If you are a follower of Aristotle, you know blood flow is everything when it comes to our health. And if the overwhelming need is to find cures for all the ‘modern’ disorders, the scientists need a clearer understanding of blood flow variations in the brain.
Buying happiness though long-term studies
The second issue concerns government regulations coupled with poor funding rates at the NIH (stands at about 10-15%), etc. as some of the issues that hinder further advances in biomedical research, leading to an atmosphere of hyper-competition, where many scientists fight for a finite amount of resources, hampering new fundamental discoveries.
An important distinction between the President’s current BRAIN initiative and the successful Human Genome Project of the 80s and 90s is perhaps both the lack of dependable tools and a clear end line that one and all in the neuroscience community can aim for.
The first set of grants were handed out in the last month while there is funding announcement for the next step focused more on human imaging. In essence, the expertise needed to pull off a miracle with respect to this BRAIN initiative requires an ´Einstein-like vision´ to take on boundaries of the laws of physics that govern us. It’s a lot of hard work, one that could reap enormous rewards. Is this worth gambling millions and billions of dollars of tax-payer monies towards this goal, of a future of healthy and happy living? Can this money buy us happiness? I do believe there is hope.