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DARPA to play major role in mapping human brain

Apr. 2, 2013 - 01:27PM   |  
DARPA, the Defense Department’s pioneer research arm, will play a major role in President Obama’s ambitious plan to map the human brain.
DARPA, the Defense Department’s pioneer research arm, will play a major role in President Obama’s ambitious plan to map the human brain. (DARPA)
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The Defense Department's pioneer research arm will play a major role in President Obama's ambitious plan to map the human brain.

The White House announced Tuesday the launch of the BRAIN Initiative — standing for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — that will include $100 million for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to develop technologies to explore and understand brain function.

Similar to the massive effort to map the human genome, the BRAIN Initiative will attempt to reveal how individual brain cells and neural circuits work and function together.

The effort could lead to cures for brain-based illnesses and diseases like Alzheimer's, epilepsy, autism and diseases that disproportionately affect troops, such as amylotropic lateral sclerosis and combat-related mental conditions and brain injuries.

“Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or [post-traumatic stress] in the veterans coming home. Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct,” Obama said.

DARPA's contribution will include a $50 million investment in programs to better understand electronic and nerve impulses in the brain. The agency is “interested in applications that [will] dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat war fighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury and memory loss.”

“Our initial focus was inspired by the challenges of wounded warriors … ranging from post-traumatic stress, brain injury and associated memory loss but also challenges with the loss of limbs and somewhat limited capability of prosthetics,” DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said.

DARPA hopes to build tools that can view, measure and control the brain from the cellular and neuronal to the macroscopic levels, she said.

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And researchers will build on current DARPA studies to understand how the brain stores information.

“We're driving toward clearer models of how memory is encoded in the brain and how lesions that lead to memory loss can be circumvented in order to restore memory that may have been damaged due to post traumatic stress or brain injury,” Prabhakar said.

DARPA and the Presidential Commission for the study of Bioethical Issues also will investigate the ethical, legal and societal concerns raised when scientists begin tinkering in peoples' brains, according to administration officials.

“The question is how we as a society decide to use what we learn out of the research. These are questions — we will not have instant answers — but we must engage in discussion not just among scientists and technologists but within a broader community,” Prabhakar said.

The initiative also will create a working group to develop a scientific plan for the effort and encourage partnerships with private research firms like the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.

“A few years ago it would not have been the time to tackle the problem with quite this degree of boldness, but advancements in technology make it possible to look at what's happening in the brain in a way that leads us to believe we can accomplish something pretty dramatic,” NIH Director Francis Collins said.

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