The announcement on Monday that President Barack Obama hopes to launch a 10-year initiative to map the human brain caught many by surprise. That includesRalph Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute at UC San Diego, who would be one of the leaders of the project.
“I fell off my chair,” he said. “I didn’t know it had been decided yet. We knew that it was under discussion, and we knew that there was some interest, but we really didn’t know that they had decided it was something really worthwhile.”
UC San Diego
Ralph Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute at UC San Diego.
The initiative is being called the Brain Activity Map project, and is likened to the Human Genome Project, but for brains instead of genetics.
Obama hopes to unveil it as early as March, and is expected to include it in his budget proposal, according to The New York Times. It is not clear where exactly the funding would come from, although the National Institutes of Health would be one likely source.
Greenspan said the idea started during a conference for neuroscientists and nanoscientists put on by the Kavli Foundation a year and a half ago.
“After two days of sort of talking at each other, at the end of the second day, this one guest who was a veteran of the Human Genome Project got up and said, ‘well I’ve heard you all say what you can do, but I haven’t heard any of you say what you really want to do, that you don’t yet see how to do,'” he said. “One of the neuroscientists perked up and said, ‘I want to be able to record from every nerve cell in the brain at the same time. So that got a group of about six of us all fired up.”
Those six scientists, including Greenspan, wrote an article in June that proposed new approaches for mapping the brain.
Greenspan said the project would help answer lots of questions about how the brain works, “from things as simple as how you move your finger to things as complicated as understanding economics.”
The project would also help understand what has gone wrong in brains of people with psychiatric diseases and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Greenspan said another hope is that the technology developed to undertake the project would boost the economy.
“Because the technologies that are going to be needed to see all of that are going to require some fancy, science fictiony new kinds of detectors, there will be technological spinoffs from this as well,” he said. “That will have economic benefits and will probably be useful in realms that have nothing to do with the brain or with living things.”
When I wrote the previous comment about reprogramming criminals I actually had no idea the US was planning a billion dollar brain mapping project. Great start in the right direction. As with any advancement, it will be important to use what we learn wisely. What may really happen is that the secret programming of human behavior takes a leap forward. What I’d like to see is a technology in the hands of everyone to reprogram their own behaviors. Want to quit smoking? Hook up to the machine, let it figure out what connections exist between smoking and your reward centers, then run the program to reset those connections. Wake up the next morning and you are completely repulsed by cigarettes. I’m sure you can see the potential abuses of such power, however, especially if programming could be done subliminally with flashing lights.