To crack human brain’s code, a search for visionaries

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – To crack the code of the human brain, Cori Bargmann figures it’s best to keep an open mind.

As one of two leaders of a scientific “dream team” in the initial phase of President Barack Obama’s ambitious $100 million project to map the brain, Bargmann said the first step is to find the right combination of people to set research priorities.

“You might start with people who are very senior and are household words in their fields, and then you may realize that what (you) actually need is the young Turk who’s a visionary wild man,” Bargmann said.

Bargmann, a neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University in New York, and William Newsome, a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School in California, are the co-chairs of a committee announced by the White House on Tuesday for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. That long title has been dubbed BRAIN for short.

Both Newsome and Bargmann are at the top of the neurobiology pyramid, professors at premiere institutions, winners of dozens of scientific honors and awards, authors of research papers in prestigious journals. As Newsome noted wryly, “I don’t need this aggravation, to some extent, but I think this is really important.”

Bargmann, who recalls watching the first Apollo moon landing in 1969 as an 8-year-old, this year won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for her work on the genetics of neural circuits and behavior and synaptic guidepost molecules.

This project was something no scientist, so far, has turned down.
“If there’s going to be a program to try to do something significant and the taxpayer’s going to be involved in it, you make the time to try to help,” she said. “As far as I know, everyone who was asked to help said yes.”

The BRAIN effort isn’t quite like any other, Bargmann said. Even the Human Genome Project had a more focused goal at the start: to determine the precise sequence of chemical “letters” that constitute the full complement of human DNA.

In contrast, before BRAIN tries to solve a single mystery of the human mind, it will build the scientific infrastructure to be able to ask the right questions. Like the U.S. space program in the 1960s, she said, BRAIN could get the public excited about science in a way that other research has not.

“I believe that brain science will be to the 21st century what quantum physics and DNA molecular biology were to the 20th century,” Newsome said.

The ultimate goal is to decode brain activity to help researchers understand complex ailments ranging from traumatic brain injury to schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease, which cost Americans $500 billion annually, according to Francis Collins, the head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who picked Newsome and Bargmann for the job.

The program would initially be funded with $100 million called for in the president’s fiscal 2014 budget, set for release on Wednesday, which is subject to approval by Congress. That sum would be divided among the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation, with partners from the private sector.

Bargmann found it refreshing that Obama said the project would provide tools for understanding Alzheimer’s and psychiatric disease, but he did not promise cures. “It isn’t promising too much,” she said.

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