Feature

In April, President Obama announced a $110 million national investment in new research to better understand the human brain. The aim of the ambitious project — called the BRAIN Initiative — is to learn more about our approximately 100 billion brain cells, the connections among them and how they relate to our behavior and our health.

"As humans, we can identify galaxies light-years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears," the president said. Unlocking that mystery, he added, could lead to new treatments for illnesses like Alzheimer's disease, autism and stroke.

The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) will be a collaborative effort among several government agencies: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) playing a coordinating role. Some private sector partners will be involved as well, such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The funding is part of the president's fiscal year 2014 budget and will require congressional approval.

The initiative has been compared with the Human Genome Project, another "big science" collaboration that, over about a decade, mapped every gene that makes up human DNA. But the BRAIN initiative has an even more daunting task: Human DNA is made up of about 25,000 genes, far fewer than the brain's billions of neurons. And unlike the Human Genome Project, the BRAIN initiative does not have an obvious end point — what does it mean, precisely, to understand or map the brain?

Right now, researchers are working to answer that question. In May, NIH convened a 15-person advisory panel, led by neuroscientists Cori Bargmann, PhD, of Rockefeller University, and William Newsome, PhD, of Stanford University, to begin mapping out the NIH part of the project's goals and timelines. The same week, NSF gathered 150 researchers to discuss similar questions. The initiative will involve neuroscientists as well as physicists, computer scientists and others who are developing the technologies that will allow researchers to examine the brain up close.

In fact, much of the discussion and many of the news reports about the BRAIN Initiative have so far focused on this technology — for example, developing arrays of tiny sensors to record data from individual brain cells and developing the electronic storage capacity to handle those data.

These technological goals might seem remote from psychologists' expertise. So what role will psychology play? A key one, says psychologist Philip Rubin, PhD, who is leading OSTP's work on the initiative in his role as principal assistant director for science and assistant director for social, behavioral, and economic sciences there.

"Ultimately, this is about the relationship of the brain to behavior," he says. "And behavior is complex, multi-textured and one of the greatest challenges to understand. … We're not just interested in a brain in a jar on a shelf, we're trying to understand the brain as part of a person or animal in the real world."

And as Obama mentioned in his speech, the new research may someday benefit clinical psychologists who work with patients with mental health disorders. Though Rubin cautions that no one should expect that cures for autism or Alzheimer's disease are around the corner, the initiative does begin to put the science together that will be necessary to face these "grand challenges," he says.

Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied cognitive neuroscience for half a century, offers a complementary perspective.

"I don't think that the first benefits [of the initiative] will be of a psychological nature," he says. "It will be about knowing how the brain carries out its actions. Where psychology comes in is that many psychologists want to have their theories and ideas constrained by a specific knowledge of how the brain works. So by knowing that, eventually psychological theories will be improved."