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Despite its profound responsibility in shaping our individual identities and making our daily lives even possible, relatively little is known about the brain and, as a result, the underlying processes that govern how we interact with and perceive the world. This lapse has proven especially troublesome when managing and treating neurological disorders, particularly mental illness, as the biological origins of these illnesses remain largely unknown. Nevertheless, this basic lack of knowledge has not stopped the proliferation of psychiatric drugs that modulate brain chemicals at the expense of side effects and the uncertainty of long-term results.
This trajectory may change course over the next ten to fifteen years as scientists begin to seek a new way of understanding of how we think, learn and remember. Last April, President Obama announced a $100 million project entitled the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or BRAIN, for short), which aims to record and map all of the brain’s synapses and neurons in order to illuminate how our brain cells interact with another and the nature of these circuitous relationships. As the equivalent of the Manhattan project for neuroscientists, the underlying hope behind the BRAIN initiative is that by delineating which synapses and neurotransmitters are the progenitors of neurological ailments (such as mental illness), researchers can learn how to develop more effective approaches, and perhaps even early intervention treatments, for neurological disorders, thus creating long-term solutions for individuals struggling with chronic illnesses such as Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Although this is the first step in a process that is long overdue, the BRAIN initiative could not have been conceived at a more auspicious time (or inauspicious, perhaps, depending on how you look at it). As record numbers of individuals are consuming anti-psychotic medications psychopharmacology is currently at a standstill; the last major drug invention occurred in 2011. This stagnation has left patients with limited options, which may or may not work out long-term. Meanwhile, the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has created a new quagmire over how to best care for returning veterans, many of whom are suffering from psychological ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. It’s not much a surprise therefore, that one of BRAIN’s major stakeholders is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the Department of Defense.
Albeit provocative, whether or not BRAIN succeeds is a different story entirely. A dismal portent emerged in June, when the European Union’s Human Brain Project (the inspiration for the BRAIN initiative) came under fire by scientists, who urged the European Commission to overhaul the HBP, claiming that its narrow focus makes finding a holistic understanding of the human brain nearly impossible. Unlike its European counterpart, BRAIN’s broad focus makes room for researchers to apply for grants to fund their own various passion projects, which may or may not end up contributing to a greater understanding of the human brain. While many of these experiments undoubtedly have some inherent scientific value, progress is not going to occur in a steady, coordinated manner if we keep tacking items on to a de facto agenda that will most likely end up deterring from the initiative’s stated vision. Simultaneously, the project’s broad focus, which lacks a definite goal or even a rough timetable, has caused a great deal of confusion in the scientific community and incurred skepticism toward the project’s value, as many researchers see it as an overzealous bureaucratic endeavor that will fizzle out and fall short of its intended impact. A harbinger of this scenario came in June when an NIH working group concluded that an additional $4.5 billion will be needed over the next decade just to cover the institution’s research costs for BRAIN. Whether or not the NIH will be able to secure this funding is completely nebulous, as Congress is so averse to spending it could barely pass legislation this year to prevent milk from skyrocketing to $6 a gallon if it included extra spending on food stamps.
Chaya Himelfarb resides in New Jersey. She is a longstanding member of Painted Brain and frequent contributor to Painted Brain News