The Brain Race Has Begun

brain scan

When President Barack Obama unveiled his $3 billion project to study the human brain, he presented it as “a chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet.” The potential economic benefits didn’t hurt, either.


“I don’t want the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or Germany,” he said, after arguing in his State of the Union address that it was time to boost R&D to a level “not seen since the height of the Space Race.”


After all, Washington’s $3.8 billion down payment on the Human Genome Project yielded $796 billion in economic benefits, including 310,000 new jobs, according to a recent study. In the end, the project provided a $140 return for every dollar invested, Obama noted in his SOU speech.


In 2014, the roughly $100 million annual budget for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) will be spread across a number of government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm.


Rafael Yuste, co-director of Columbia University’s Kavli Institute for Brain Science, told The Financialist that he envisioned at least six business opportunities in a diverse group of industries, including consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals, that could emerge from BRAIN-related research.


On the medical front, a better understanding of the brain could help researchers craft effective therapies to fight neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Yuste said. Recent data published in Neurology, the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology, estimated that nearly 14 million people in the U.S. alone would be diagnosed with the degenerative disease by 2050 – triple the current number.


Researchers also hope to create enhanced brain-computer interfaces that use sensors to read the brain’s electric signals. These could eventually allow paralyzed people to move objects using only their thoughts.


Promising work is already happening in this arena. Researchers at Brown University’s Brown Institute for Brain Science, for example, inserted 96 electrodes into a tetraplegic stroke victim’s motor cortex. The electrodes tapped into the electrical activity created by the participant’s neurons firing away and sent signals to two robotic arms. The participant was able to drink a cup of coffee unassisted. Researchers hope that stimulating larger clusters of neurons could allow more complicated movements.


“This technology could become so sophisticated that eventually you could be able to drive a car, for instance, without using your hands, by just wearing a helmet,” said Yuste.


BRAIN could also lead to an array of improved medical devices, especially as neuroscience advances increasingly incorporate nanotechnology. Earlier this year, for example, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new retinal prosthetic developed by California-based Second Sight Medical Products Inc. that restores partial sight to those with light-sensitive, damaged retinas.


Yuste acknowledges that the biggest breakthroughs may be 15 years away, a time frame he says could have been shorter if the government had offered more funding. Yuste says that discoveries will likely impact medicine first, but could eventually trickle down to foster cutting-edge consumer electronic goods.


“All consumer electronics rely on the interface between the human and the screen,” Yuste said. “So, all these technologies that we are proposing to develop will enhance the information that you can read out of the brain, or bring into the brain, and this has the potential to revolutionize consumer electronics.”


But first, the BRAIN initiatives must overcome immense scientific challenges. Scientists have managed to make a complete map of only one organism’s brain circuitry: the roundworm, which has just 302 brain cells. The map of the fruit fly’s 150,000-neuron brain is nearly complete, and next up is a mouse, which could have as many as 75 million neurons. That undertaking is expected to take at least five years.


By contrast, human brains have an estimated 86 billion neurons with between 100-500 trillion interconnections. That staggering complexity dwarfs by several orders of magnitude the Human Genome Project’s task of sequencing 2.9 billion base pairs, the building blocks of the DNA double helix.


Given the daunting task, some scientists are concerned the program is being oversold. They worry the lack of timely results might undermine vital public support for the billions of dollars needed, probably over the span of several decades, before the research yields tangible benefits.


In a nutshell, Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told The Financialist: “Don’t overpromise.”


“The genome mapping, I think, was worth doing,” Caplan said. “But it has left many in Congress and some on the industry side saying, ‘Where are the goodies’?”


BRAIN’s official mandate calls for a complete mapping or recording of neural activity. But some, including Partha Mitra, director of the Mouse Brain Architecture Project at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., have said it is critical to accomplish the more fundamental task of creating a physical map of the brain before researchers can begin to understand the vast and complex network of neural connections. Mitra is overseeing the team mapping the mouse brain.


The public, said Michael Carroll, a computational neuroscientist at the Chicago Children’s Hospital, must understand the BRAIN undertaking for what it is: “a basic science infrastructure development initiative” meant to jump-start the development of tools and technologies that can unlock breakthroughs further down the road.


Defenders of the BRAIN undertaking point to a long list of technologies that trickled out of earlier government-funded basic science initiatives – CAT scans, GPS technology, computer chips and the Internet, to name a few.


“One can learn from history that you cannot predict the future,” Yuste said. “It may be the real economic benefit is something no one can imagine right now.”