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Andrew PorterfieldAndrew Porterfield has a master’s degree in biotechnology management from the University of Maryland and has worked as a marketing communications consultant for many biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms.

Understanding how the brain functions is one of our grandest challenges. Today, we still lack a universal model for how neurons and other cells interact to produce thoughts, emotions, reactions, and disease. On the disease front, we are still stymied by major illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and autism. Not to take an electronics metaphor too far, but what may be needed is a research jump start.

Such a prodding may come from the new BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which was proposed by the White House last month and is included in the President Barack Obama’s 2014 proposed budget. The BRAIN Initiative will appropriate $100 million through the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and The National Science Foundation to support research on developing new technologies and tools that can provide better images of brain function—and more work on determining single-cell function as well as the dynamics of complex neural circuitries. In addition, the initiative already has identified partners who will engage in BRAIN projects; these partners include the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and The Kavli Foundation.

It should not come as a surprise that many researchers are excited about the opportunities (particularly the financial ones) the BRAIN Initiative provides. But others are skeptical about whether the program has any specific objectives. Still more say that BRAIN might be looking at the wrong objectives, and at least one scientist, neurologist/author Robert Burton, says the initiative’s only value may be in changing how we think about the brain:

  • Some scientists have bemoaned the lack of specific goals, although a more detailed research report is due later this year, while others are concerned that the initiative focuses too much on purely human applications.
  • Columbia University neuroscientist Rafael Yuste had originally proposed a larger initiative, called the Brain Activity Map, which would treat brain function as a complex interaction among constituent parts, and understood only by creating novel tools (developed by interdisciplinary efforts) to reveal what are still unknown, yet basic brain functions. Yuste points out that individual cell studies have not predicted overall brain function, so there must be something much more complicated going on.
  • Burton, in an interview with Salon (where he is a regular contributor), builds on Yuste’s theme, claiming that we need a whole new way to think about thinking. Part of the brain is pure anatomy and physiology, but the other part is mind awareness—subjective (but very real) attributes that the scientific method isn’t good at uncovering.

Knowing how the brain works would indeed take us from what neuroscience pioneer Ramon y Cajal called the “impenetrable jungle” to a viable treatment for mental disorders. But whether that moment will come from better tools, or different perceptions, remain to be seen. Like so many ambitious initiatives before BRAIN, perhaps the answer lies in the journey itself.

What specific goals would you suggest for future brain research?