Brain Mapping Like Moon Race: La Jolla Scientist

Scientists will explore details of the brain, which contains 100 billion cells

A La Jolla neuroscientist likened the launch of an effort to map the brain in unprecedented detail to JFK's challenge of putting a man on the moon.

Terrence J. Sejnowski was in Washington, D.C. Tuesday as President Barack Obama asked Congress to spend $100 million next year on BRAIN or Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

Scientists will explore details of the brain, which contains 100 billion cells and trillions of connections in an effort to find better ways to treat such conditions as Alzheimer's, autism, stroke and traumatic brain injuries.

"Imagine how it must have felt to be a rocket engineer when Kennedy said we would reach for the moon. You know there's an almost unimaginable amount of hard work ahead of you—and yet you can't wait to get started," Sejnowski said in a Salk Institute statement released following the president’s announcement.

Senjnowski is a professor and the Head of Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.

He compared the result of this research to the Human Genome Project. "This is the start of the million neuron march," he said.

The president wants private companies, university and philanthropists to partner with federal agencies to support the research.

"As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away," Obama said. "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."

Salk Institute announced it will join The Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Kavli Foundation, and The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in helping to fund the BRAIN Initiative.

The investment is less than a fifth of what NASA spends every year just to study the sun according to the Associated Press.

Still, it's too early to determine how Congress will react.

While the ultimate goal applies to the human brain, some work will be done in simpler systems of the brains of animals like worms, flies and mice.

Sejnowski says BRAIN could reduce the cost for treatment and long-term care of brain-related disorders.

“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,” according to Sejnowski.

“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.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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