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Old 02-21-2013, 11:39 PM   #1
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Why Obama wants to map the human brain

The White House is set to reveal an ambitious, groundbreaking plan to unravel the inner-workings of the mind

Of all the ideas mentioned in President Obama's State of the Union address last week, one that stood out against the rest was his mention of an ambitious plan to roadmap the entirety of the human brain — the mysterious, messy tangle of neurons and synapses firing between your ears this very second.

"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar," said Obama, referring to the decades-long Human Genome Project, a groundbreaking international effort to map our DNA, which this new project is being silhouetted against. "Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's. They're developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation."

Following up on Obama's statement, The New York Times reports that in the coming months, the White House will announce the Brain Activity Map Project, an unprecedented, federally funded, multi-billion-dollar effort to unravel the inner-workings of Mother Nature's most powerful processor. The initiative will be spearheaded by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with support from the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies. Officials are hoping to tap into a network of neuroscientists from top-tier institutions from all over the world to focus on a singular, decade-and-a-half goal: To build the first-ever working model of the mind.

The case for mapping the brain
Hints of the BAM project first surfaced last June in the journal Neuron, when Harvard geneticist George Church first proposed a plan to illustrate the brain's little-understood but vast architecture, which, of course, is expensive. "We can bring down the cost and increase the quality of the technology," Church tells NBC News. "We are trying to work with current funding [levels] to bring down the cost." The federal government's proposed 15-year effort would inject some $3 billion into global neuroscience research, with the aim to lower the cost of existing technologies and pioneer new techniques that allow us to get a closer, deeper look into the brain at a molecular level. Constructing a fully functional model with every neural pathway and action meticulously documented could allow researchers from far-reaching scientific fields to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and schizophrenia; develop faster, more efficient supercomputers; and, if we're lucky, perhaps even jolt the economy with a lucrative return on its investment, much like the Human Genome Project mentioned in Obama's speech.

How they'll do it
Mapping the brain, of course, isn't easy — if it were, we would've done it by now. Church and his comrades insist that such a task wouldn't start with human heads, but rather with the brains of lab mice before working our way up to apes. Tracing the brain's advanced circuitry can be accomplished a few ways, with different research institutions divvying up the workload: Traditional magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), wireless fiber-optic brain implants, and even attaching genetically engineered tracer cells to existing brain cells, like a Google driverless car for your brain's highways.

Eliminating disease
Writing for this website in November, Bill Frist called on the eventual president to wage a war on Alzheimer's, the crippling brain disease that affects 1 in 8 Americans. "It is a demographically driven, rapidly expanding condition that is incurable and fatal," he said. "It wrenches apart families emotionally and economically. And it will, if not reversed, inevitably affect every family." The origins of Alzheimer's, like many other degenerative disorders, are still largely a mystery. Its symptoms can severely affect a person's twilight years, robbing them of their memory, perception, language, and cognitive skills. Understanding how the brain's roughly 100 billion neurons travel — or more specifically, learning where damaging traffic pile-ups happen — could offer scientists valuable insight into new treatments. "Not least, we might expect novel understanding and therapies for diseases like schizophrenia and autism," wrote the BAM proposal's scientists.

Smarter computers
Futurists like Ray Kurzweil, author of How to Create a Mind, have been interested in reverse-engineering the brain for a long time. It's easy to see how understanding the brain's mechanics could lead to more powerful supercomputers, especially since we've already figured out how to effectively transform strands of DNA into hard drives. Imagine: Artificial intelligence trouncing the speed and accuracy of IBM's Watson. Desktop PCs that can efficiently code solutions to their own problems. It's not a question of if, at this point, but a matter of when.

And it isn't just our machines that will receive a processing boost. "Knowing how the human brain works means that we will, at some point in the near future, be able to fundamentally change the structure of it by re-arranging a few neural pathways," says Domnic Basulto at The Washington Post. "If we understand how memory works, we may be able to download new memories into our brains. If we understand how language processing works, we may be able to insert foreign language knowledge into our brains just like a series of software upgrades."

A question of legacy
The big question now is: Why would Obama spring for such an initiative? The Washington Post's Basulto says it won't be to create jobs, and he wonders if it's something of a legacy play. "In much the same way that the JFK presidency has become known as the one that sent our nation to the moon, will the Obama presidency be known as the one where we mapped the human brain and broke the bar on artificial intelligence forever?" If the Human Genome Project, which began in 1990, is any indication, the BAM initiative could pay off handsomely from an economic standpoint. Completed ahead of schedule in 2003, the Human Genome Project tallied $3.8 billion in overall cost. However, a federal government study of its lasting impact estimates its techniques and scientific advances injected close to $800 billion back into the economy by 2010.

Understanding the inordinately complex circuitry of the brain will predictably force us to grapple with tough questions. Why are some people more susceptible to depression than others? What makes one 5-year-old the next Einstein while another is exhibits the telltale signs of autism? What, asks Basulto, constitutes a person's soul?

The answer, of course, is we don't know. But if the BAM Project is as anywhere near as successful as the Human Genome Project, with any luck "I don't know" is a phrase we'll find ourselves saying less and less.

http://theweek.com/article/index/240...he-human-brain
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Old 02-22-2013, 02:09 AM   #2
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The BAM project is a good idea and worthy of general funding by the govt. It is basic research, and it will likely yield much of value, like the Human Genome project did, and DARPA. It will probably be 15-20 years before we see hard currency results and that is OK. Just because it won't "turn the economy around tomorrow" doesn't mean it isn't of value.
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Old 02-22-2013, 02:30 AM   #3
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Good. The brain is the most complex organ on the planet. It's still a huge mystery to us. The more we can understand it, the better we will be. We hardly understand many neurological ailments as it is. We have drugs that somewhat cure them, but they're not perfect by any means. I fully support this project 110%.
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Old 02-22-2013, 07:41 AM   #4
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Hopefully this will lead to us having futurama heads in jars and eternal life!



not to play party pooper, but how is this spending constitutional?
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Old 02-22-2013, 08:28 AM   #5
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not to play party pooper, but how is this spending constitutional?
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Old 02-22-2013, 08:31 AM   #6
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It's an honest question. I think it would be awesome to map the brain, that doesn't mean the federal government has the authority to sink billions into it when we're already broke. Glad to see you are still incapable of intelligent discourse, though.
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Old 02-22-2013, 08:49 AM   #7
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It's an honest question. I think it would be awesome to map the brain, that doesn't mean the federal government has the authority to sink billions into it when we're already broke. Glad to see you are still incapable of intelligent discourse, though.
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:04 AM   #8
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not to play party pooper, but how is this spending constitutional?
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:05 AM   #9
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The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
oh I'm aware of the Constitution already, thank you As you are such an excellent quoter, I'm sure you are aware of the enumerated powers?

edit: Just to cut you off, if you are one of those people that think "general welfare" basically means "we can spend on anything we want" then the constitution in itself would be a moot document. The document places limits on the federal government. To add something in there that basically says "btw you can do anything" would render the entire thing useless.
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:05 AM   #10
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oh I'm aware of the Constitution already, thank you As you are such an excellent quoter, I'm sure you are aware of the enumerated powers?
Then why did you ask the question?

Edit: Of course, states rights. How does the Fed researching the human brain violate states rights? There's a strong argument that doing this provides for the general welfare of the states, no? Are you suggesting that the drafters should have included a note about mapping the human brain?

2nd Edit: I don't think that "general welfare" equates to spending anything you want, but it's cute of you to assume.
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:07 AM   #11
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Then why did you ask the question?
see edit.
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:09 AM   #12
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see edit.
ditto
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:13 AM   #13
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ditto
because all rights not expressly given to the federal government are reserved to the states, or the people. We're broke as a joke with ridiculous debt and deficits, this is just more spending when the ship is already sinking. It violates states rights (and the people's) because it involves the government taking more money from the citizens of those states to pay for things it has no right to spend on.

We can't just fund every cool idea, no matter how cool it is. Are you telling me that there are no private researchers, universities, etc. that are willing or interested in doing this? Me thinks not.

Again, the government is supposed to be limited. Right now we have a limitless government, are you happy the way things are going? Is anyone? Also, I said if you are one of these General Welfare people...
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:29 AM   #14
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because all rights not expressly given to the federal government are reserved to the states, or the people. We're broke as a joke with ridiculous debt and deficits, this is just more spending when the ship is already sinking. It violates states rights (and the people's) because it involves the government taking more money from the citizens of those states to pay for things it has no right to spend on.
We're far from broke, but that's a whole other issue.

I'm glad Kennedy didn't think like this when deciding on the space program. The revenue from that endeavor still pays dividends today. Would you agree that if this endeavor ended up in the black it would be a good move for the government to pursue?


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We can't just fund every cool idea, no matter how cool it is. Are you telling me that there are no private researchers, universities, etc. that are willing or interested in doing this? Me thinks not.
If there were, don't you think they would already be doing it?

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Again, the government is supposed to be limited. Right now we have a limitless government, are you happy the way things are going? Is anyone? Also, I said if you are one of these General Welfare people...
I think we can agree that no one is particularly happy with how the government is run......can you think of a time where everyone said "....you know what? We all agree on how the government is being run!" Do you think that will ever happen?
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Old 02-22-2013, 09:31 AM   #15
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We're far from broke, but that's a whole other issue.

I'm glad Kennedy didn't think like this when deciding on the space program. The revenue from that endeavor still pays dividends today. Would you agree that if this endeavor ended up in the black it would be a good move for the government to pursue?




If there were, don't you think they would already be doing it?


I think we can agree that no one is particularly happy with how the government is run......can you think of a time where everyone said "....you know what? We all agree on how the government is being run!" Do you think that will ever happen?
Ok so you're answer is basically, we should spend money on whatever we think is cool and will be beneficial. That's fine, but it doesn't make it legally right.
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Old 02-22-2013, 10:11 AM   #16
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Ok so you're answer is basically, we should spend money on whatever we think is cool and will be beneficial. That's fine, but it doesn't make it legally right.
So, what does and does not constitute the general welfare? Do you find federally funded highways to be unconstitutional?
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Old 02-22-2013, 10:11 AM   #17
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"The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;
Seems pretty clear, well-enumerated, Constitutional and thus legal to my reading.

Of course one may try to apply some Nth-degree slippery-slope argument as seems to be the bent of many Tea Party and other modern day conservative types regarding all but the most constricted, rigid and archaic understanding of the Constitution -- "human brain mapping" not being specifically spelled out verbatim -- but I think using reasonable judgment well validates a modern "intellectual infrastructure" project such as this.

As Obama noted, the human genome investment has already reaped immense benefits not only to the more narrow economic welfare of the U.S., but more broadly to its overall general welfare in terms of health benefits.

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Old 02-22-2013, 11:22 AM   #18
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It's an honest question. I think it would be awesome to map the brain, that doesn't mean the federal government has the authority to sink billions into it when we're already broke.
Says the man over the internet, which was created out of the DARPAnet program, which was funded by...wait for it...the US Government.

Of course according to your rationale, there should be no interstate highway system. Or Coast Guard given that you now have so many land locked states, it is no longer a common defense.

Is the govt bloated? Yes. Is budget reform needed? Sure damn is.
However, the govt has done and continues to do many things that promote the general welfare that the founders never thought of, but, none the less are constitutional (the USSC has ruled as such). Funding basic research is one of them.
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Old 02-22-2013, 11:23 AM   #19
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Sounds great. This should have been in the general section.
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Old 02-22-2013, 11:27 AM   #20
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AofG, is Social Security constitutional?
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