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DARPA Will Help Obama Map Your Brain

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First Posted: Apr 03, 2013 07:47 AM EDT
Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain.

Plaster phrenological models of heads, showing different parts of the brain. Credit:Reuters

Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) will play a key role in President Obama's plan to map the human brain.

On Tuesday April 2 the White House announced the launch of the project, called BRAIN for "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies." DARPA will be one of three recipients of $100 million for the project, the others being the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The BRAIN Initiative is essentially an effort to uncover how neural circuits and brain cells operate and work together. Discoveries from the project could potentially lead to cures for diseases like autism, Alzheimer's, epilepsy and mental conditions and injuries resulting from combat.

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"Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or [post-traumatic stress] in the veterans coming home," Obama said. "Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct."

For DARPA's part, it will seek to gain a greater understanding of the brain's electronic and nerve impulses. The agency hopes to make new tools for viewing and controlling the brain and will draw on current DARPA studies to do so.

"We're driving toward clearer models of how memory is encoded in the brain and how lesions that lead to memory loss can be circumvented in order to restore memory that may have been damaged due to post traumatic stress or brain injury," DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said.

In conjunction with the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, DARPA will also examine the legal, ethical and social concerns of brain mapping. Also planned is a group that will focus on fostering partnerships with private research companies such as the Kavli Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"A few years ago it would not have been the time to tackle the problem with quite this degree of boldness, but advancements in technology make it possible to look at what's happening in the brain in a way that leads us to believe we can accomplish something pretty dramatic," NIH Director Francis Collins said.

The development follows the first successful cellular level brain scan, conducted on a zebrafish. For the first time, scientists were able to watch a brain function in real time.

 

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