Obama’s $3 Billion brain research plan could have gone to many smaller studies, some scientists complain

Source: The Atlantic Wire

The Atlantic has published this article including several responses to Obama’s State of the Union vow to support  “junk” DNA studies with $3 billion over the next 10 years.  David Wagner reports:

“Funding-strapped researchers should be rejoicing at President Obama’s promise to put $3 billion towards mapping the human brain, right? Not according to scientists who say the project lacks clear goals and gobbles up money that could’ve gone to a lot more smaller studies.”

The joint research project is called the “Brain Activity Map”.  Wagner describes this project that will utilize MRI technology to map the brain as:

A huge neuroscience undertaking that the Obama administration plans to invest $300 million in annually for the next decade. A joint project between federal agencies, private research foundations, and leading neuroscientists, the envisioned project would create a definitive map of interaction between the human brain’s approximately 100 billion neurons. Advocates say the findings could improve our understanding of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, lead to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, and boost the economy.

Some scientists applaud this windfall of funding for mapping the brain, according to this report.  Wagner writes:

With sequestration hovering over research like a blunt guillotine, you might expect scientists to be on board with Church and Obama, supporting such huge allocations. And you’d be right to think that plenty of them are cheering the windfall. But a cadre of researchers remain skeptical about this second “Decade of the Brain,” expressing concern about the feasibility of the Brain Activity Map’s goals and wondering whether this is the best use of federal resources. Let’s look at a few of their objections.

Too many eggs in one basket

Wagner uses several quotes from scientists critical of the singularly aimed, mega-funding.  He continues:

The Human Genome Project may have been a major success for man-on-the-moon level research projects, accomplishing its goals ahead of schedule and paying off the federal government’s investment in spades. But the track record for similarly scaled research efforts is far from spotless. In fact, following his involvement in the huge “junk” DNA research project ENCODE, UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen argued against such “Big Science”  projects. “The lesson I learned from ENCODE is that projects like ENCODE are not a good idea,” he wrote on his personal blog. “I think it is now clear that big biology is not a boon for individual discovery-driven science. Ironically, and tragically, it is emerging as the greatest threat to its continued existence.”

This leads to the argument that ,”Feds should diversify their research investments,” Wagner reports.

He writes:

While the Obama administration puts together the Brain Activity Map funding package, university research leaders are warning Congress that automatic budget cuts threaten to ax “the discovery and innovation that fuels the economy.”

There are scientists that have raised objections to the validity of MRI’s to detect normal brain activity, despite the colorful fMRI pictures.  Wagner quotes John Bardin, who wrote in Nature:

Researchers have yet to prove that MRI techniques can produce a reliable picture of normal connectivity, never mind the types of abnormal connection likely to be found in brain disorders, and some researchers argue that the techniques have not been adequately validated. “I would do the basic neuroscience before I started running lots of people through MRI scanners,” says David Kleinfeld, a physics and neurobiology researcher at the University of California, San Diego.


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