President Barack Obama announced a $100 million brain-mapping initiative Tuesday in order to better understand diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's—but some in the field say that the money, while welcome, isn't likely to make a huge difference in researchers' understanding of the brain.
Obama likened the BRAIN Initiative to the Human Genome Project—a 13-year initiative that determined the sequence of human DNA. Obama said the project will attempt to understand the brain's "100 billion neurons making trillions of connections" in an attempt to "crack the code" of what causes degenerative neurological conditions.
However, hundreds of millions of dollars are already spent trying to do just that. The National Institutes of Health, which will receive at least $40 million of the initial funds, already spends $5.5 billion annually on "neurosciences."
Rivka Inzelberg, a researcher at Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine (which is associated with the University of the State of New York), says that more money is always helpful, but that it will take much more to completely understand how the brain works. Though details on how the BRAIN Initiative will work haven't been announced yet, brain mapping has typically been a very expensive endeavor.
"A lot of money is needed because [mapping] is expensive—imaging techniques and computational analysis is very complicated," Inzelberg says. "Of course, any money invested in this area is welcome, but $100 million is not a lot of money for brain research. It is a lot of money, but it's below what is really needed."
Obama's says that mapping the human brain is another one of his "grand challenges," such as making solar energy cheap or electric cars more affordable. He says the initial $100 million will be supplemented with money from private companies and that the outlay is just intended to "launch this effort."
Inzelberg says incremental advancements have been made in neurology over the past few years, but research is increasingly necessary as life expectancies increase. The number of people with Alzheimer's Disease is expected to triple by 2050, with 7 million of the expected 13.8 million cases likely to occur in people older than 85.
"It's not going to be a sudden breakthrough—as we accumulate more knowledge, we'll begin making more progress," she says. "It's a problem with major implications—we'll not only have the cost of treating these people, but it'll also be a burden for the generation of people who will have to take care of them."