Map of the human Brain function

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on Feb. 12, 2013.

To navigate something as complex and dynamic as the brain, a map would help.

Researchers have learned an enormous amount about how we think, what drives our behaviors, and why we feel the way we do since President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the 1990s the “decade of the brain, ” but many fundamental questions about the three-pound universe remain unanswered. So President Obama has proposed a Brain Activity Map (BAM) project to reveal some of these remaining secrets, using the Human Genome Project as a model. Not all scientists, however, are on board.

In his state of the union speech, the President noted that every dollar invested in the human genome project “returned $140 to our economy.” With some $3.8 billion spent over 13 years, the resulting gene-based boon turned out to be $796 billion in new jobs, medical treatments, increased salaries and other benefits, according to a 2011 analysis conducted for the federal government. Although medical care has not advanced as much as initially expected because — surprise — the science of genetics is more complex than scientists had anticipated, the data is continuing to yield fruit and promises to provide more value in years to come.

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The BAM project hopes to offer returns of equal or greater value, although the amount of funding has not yet been determined. The New York Times reports that scientists hope for at least as much money as was devoted to the genome project— $300 million a year for at least ten years— but what the administration will seek as part of the proposed budget and where the money will come from is not yet clear.

The goal is to produce the first map of brain function to explore every signal sent by every cell and track how the resulting data flows through neural networks and is ultimately translated into thoughts, feelings and actions. While work is already underway to understand the wiring diagram of the whole brain— known as the connectome— this project would go beyond that to try to understand what this circuitry actually does.

MORE: Q&A: Are You Just the Sum of Your Brain’s Connections?

“I have been interested throughout my entire career in one burning question: how do we turn thought into action?” says John Donaghue, professor of neuroscience at Brown University, who is one of the core scientists involved in the project. Although current brain imaging techniques and cell-based studies offer some insight into how the brain works, they don’t provide a deep enough look at the brain’s inner workings.

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Q&A

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How would you compare the strategies of the public consortium of the human genome project and of celera genomics for mapping a genome

How would you compare the strategies of the public consortium of the human genome project and of celera genomics for mapping a genome


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