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FEATURE

Decoding the human brain
The White House is investing big in brain science. What will that mean for psychology?
By Lea Winerman
Monitor Staff
July/August 2013, Vol 44, No. 7
Print version: page 20

In April, President Obama announced a $110 million national investment in new research to
better understand the human brain. The aim of the ambitious project — called the BRAIN
Initiative — is to learn more about our approximately 100 billion brain cells, the
connections among them and how they relate to our behavior and our health.
"As humans, we can identify galaxies light-years away, 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," the president said. Unlocking that mystery, he added, could lead to new
treatments for illnesses like Alzheimer's disease, autism and stroke.
The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies)
will be a collaborative effort among several government agencies: the National Institutes of
Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science
Foundation (NSF), with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)
playing a coordinating role. Some private sector partners will be involved as well, such as
the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The funding is part of the president's fiscal year 2014
budget and will require congressional approval.
The initiative has been compared with the Human Genome Project, another "big science"
collaboration that, over about a decade, mapped every gene that makes up human DNA.
But the BRAIN initiative has an even more daunting task: Human DNA is made up of
about 25,000 genes, far fewer than the brain's billions of neurons. And unlike the Human
Genome Project, the BRAIN initiative does not have an obvious end point — what does it
mean, precisely, to understand or map the brain?
Right now, researchers are working to answer that question. In May, NIH convened a 15person advisory panel, led by neuroscientists Cori Bargmann, PhD, of Rockefeller
University, and William Newsome, PhD, of Stanford University, to begin mapping out the
NIH part of the project's goals and timelines. The same week, NSF gathered 150
researchers to discuss similar questions. The initiative will involve neuroscientists as well
as physicists, computer scientists and others who are developing the technologies that will
allow researchers to examine the brain up close.
In fact, much of the discussion and many of the news reports about the BRAIN Initiative
have so far focused on this technology — for example, developing arrays of tiny sensors to
record data from individual brain cells and developing the electronic storage capacity to
handle those data.
These technological goals might seem remote from psychologists' expertise. So what role
will psychology play? A key one, says psychologist Philip Rubin, PhD, who is leading

PhD. "It will be about knowing how the brain carries out its actions. of the University of California. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga." And as Obama mentioned in his speech." he says. multi-textured and one of the greatest challenges to understand. Where psychology comes in is that many psychologists want to have their theories and ideas constrained by a specific knowledge of how the brain works. Though Rubin cautions that no one should expect that cures for autism or Alzheimer's disease are around the corner. "I don't think that the first benefits [of the initiative] will be of a psychological nature. "Ultimately." he says. So by knowing that. the new research may someday benefit clinical psychologists who work with patients with mental health disorders. this is about the relationship of the brain to behavior. we're trying to understand the brain as part of a person or animal in the real world.aspx . the initiative does begin to put the science together that will be necessary to face these "grand challenges. who has studied cognitive neuroscience for half a century. … We're not just interested in a brain in a jar on a shelf. behavioral." he says.OSTP's work on the initiative in his role as principal assistant director for science and assistant director for social." Find this article at: http://www.apa. and economic sciences there. "And behavior is complex. offers a complementary perspective.org/monitor/2013/07-08/brain. eventually psychological theories will be improved. Santa Barbara.