A new era in the understanding of the human brain began today when United States President Barack Obama announced a US$100 million research initiative to start mapping the neural circuitry of the mind.
The aim is to understand what goes wrong in a range of debilitating neurological conditions, from childhood autism to Alzheimer's disease, and provide new treatments and possibly cures for brain disorders that have become the biggest medical burden in the developed world.
Although the funding for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies is relatively small, Obama said it would start a field of endeavour similar to the US$3.6 billion ($4.2 billion) human genome project to map the complete DNA sequence of man.
The Brain initiative is directed at mapping the neural circuits of the brain with novel technologies such as tiny nanosensors and wireless fibre-optic tools, in conjunction with more traditional methods such as magnetic resonance imaging.
"Many of the most devastating human brain disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, only seem to emerge when large-scale assemblies of neurons are involved," said Dr Terry Sejnowski, an eminent neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California."Other terrible conditions such as blindness and paralysis result from disruptions in circuit connections. The more precise our information about specific circuits, the more we will understand what went wrong, where it went wrong and how to target therapies."
The Brain initiative will be orchestrated by America's federal research institutes in co-operation with the private sector. This year, the European Commission set up announced the Human Brain Project, one of two flagship science programmes involving more than 80 research institutions from across Europe with a budget of €1.19 billion.