So this is where our tax dollars are going
by Ali Glembocki
This is where President Obama is putting your tax money, Dad: major neurological research. The painstakingly titled BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative plans to map the “language” of the brain, an organ that is still largely unknown to modern science.
The National Institute of Health will form a “brain trust” of 15 scientists to guide the initiative, which will require an initial investment of $100 million. BRAIN’s slice of the 2014 fiscal budget is believed to have a large return on investment. Over 100 million Americans are affected by mental illness, and increased research will begin to ease the $500 billion Americans spend each year on mental health care costs.
BRAIN will delve into a laundry list of mental conditions, including autism, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy. Research will start on the micro level, studying how individual neurons affect the big picture of neurology. John Donohue, neurologist at Brown University, likens the current neurological knowledge gap to “reading the newspaper at two arms’ length.”
A major roadblock in neurological research has been technology. The human brain is drastically different than those of animals usually used for neurological trials, such as mice. The wide spectrum of mental illnesses are unique to humans, making animal testing limited in its scope. Dr. Christer Nordsted, vice president of neurological research at Eli Lilly and Co, comments “We’ve been handicapped by the fact that we have been studying diseases in animals that don’t really exist in animals. Mice don’t get depression. They don’t get schizophrenia. They don’t get Alzheimer’s disease.”
Modern wireless technology will aid in research, providing a means of probing the human mind while being minimally invasive. The BRAIN Initiative is predicted to boost the economy, stimulating the technology, science, and engineering sectors. President Obama asserts that, “Ideas are what power our economy,” and that in studying the human brain, “there’s this enormous mystery, awaiting to be unlocked.”
BRAIN is comparable to the Human Genome Project, a $3 billion investment in the study of human genetics commissioned by President Bill Clinton. The project sought to find the genetic sequences linked with common diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. According to President Obama, the research and technology opportunities created by the Human Genome Project returned $140 to the economy for every dollar invested.
There is much controversy surrounding the BRAIN Initiative, including much skepticism from scientists who question the focus of Obama’s brain mapping initiative. Unlike the Human Genome Project, which sought to categorize the entire human genome through studying genetic base pairs, BRAIN currently has no concrete, foreseeably attainable goals. Along with open-ended goals, there is also an open-ended cost to the brain-mapping project, which could be a recurring expense for at least 15 years before substantial progress is made.
Dr. Donald Stein of the Brain Research Lab at Emory University argues that the concept of being able to “map” the functions of the human brain is false. Stein suggests that the brain’s “geography” does not necessarily line up with its “function,” making an accurate map of the human brain an impossible task. BRAIN may indeed be pouring an indefinite amount of funds into a project that oversimplifies the complex nature of neurology.
Social conservatives are also concerned with the true motives of Obama’s brain research project. Lauri Bohanan, Staff Orwellian of the Conservative Daily News, suggests that the “next ‘great’ frontier will include the Thought Police.” The government will not only have the ability to reach into our pockets now, but also into our brains.
Fiscal conservatives share qualms with scientists regarding the BRAIN Initiative, viewing such an open-ended project as economic kryptonite in the midst of a financial crisis. The current total debt at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, including federal, state, and local debt, is $20.541 trillion, and is projected to increase under the current planned budget.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor counters that the $100 million invested in neurological research will be a better use of funds than the current $250 million being invested political and social science research. Cantor recently proposed the Kids First Research Act, which seeks to turn presidential campaigning funds into funding for National Institute of Health pediatric health research.
The new investment in neurological research will hopefully bring the national issue of mental health to the forefront, prompting drug companies to strengthen their research in the health sector. In the wake of the BRAIN Initiative proposition, National Institute of Health director Francis Collins has deemed President Obama “scientist in chief.” While Obama has made great strides with the BRAIN Initiative, Mr. Collins, it’s probably best not to pull a Nobel and give President Obama any preemptive awards. In a shaky financial environment, focus is integral to success.