Neural Pathways to the Future

News about government policy is usually dominated by reports of debt crises, health care bills, or congressional gridlock. Every news story seems to foreshadow inevitable, lurking catastrophe, and every policy decision and government directive is undermined by negative connotations, debate, and future prospects. Government appears broken, dysfunctional, and without any long-term vision.

But every now and then, we will hear about an initiative that should transcend petty political complaints and deep-seated differences. In his State of the Union Address on February 12, President Obama announced the Brain Activity Map project, a proposed $3-billion research project to explore the workings of the human brain. Initiatives like BAM are emblematic of the kind of lasting legacies political leaders can leave, with intangible, yet powerful effects. BAM and other scientific endeavors should hold more authority as policy initiatives that could dramatically impact health, social, and political policies for decades to come.

The Brain Activity Map is modeled off of the Human Genome Project, which revealed new insights into genetic code and yielded valuable research techniques and potentially landmark implications for the treatment of diseases. In a similar manner, BAM seeks to create the first comprehensive map of the human brain and the signals and neural networks that make it function. The project, if successful, would not only bring us closer to understanding some of the most enduring mysteries of human existence, but a brain map could also help us develop new scientific fields like neural nanotechnology and help scientists better understand the circuitry of diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer’s, depression, and schizophrenia.

Some remain skeptical that the initiative is a wise investment. The proposed budget is expected to call for $3 billion to be spent over the course of a decade. Many question the economic wisdom of investing so many federal resources in one research project, and some scientists worry it will come at the expense of funding for other valuable scientific endeavors. The project’s goals, they argue, are too lofty, their focus too vague, and their potential yields uncertain.

However, a centralized federal effort to understand the brain is the way to unite policy and science and promote human progress beyond the immediate and proximal concerns of most political debates. Beyond helping us satisfy our innate human desire to understand the nature of our thoughts and the secret, mysterious processes of our minds, this research could have lasting impact on the lives of every citizen. We can develop better treatments and policy measures to help an aging population cope with dementia. We can devise new approaches to mental health care and to how we deal with mental illness. Some have even suggested that BAM could help us form more effective policies to win the war on drugs by exploring the brain of an addict. The possibilities and implications are vast.

Social policy isn’t the only policy realm that would be impacted by BAM. Like the Human Genome Project, BAM also serves as an economic stimulus. The Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion over 13 years, but it more than compensated for the expense by generating $796 billion in returns and 310,000 jobs. Not all scientific studies enjoy the success and economic impact of HGP, but researchers working on BAM believe economic returns are likely, especially considering that research techniques could lead to improvements of technology and potentially lower technological costs in the future. Harvard biologist George M. Church, who will be heading the BAM project, expects the brain map to be as profitable as HGP, if not more so, and the research could jumpstart new, job-creating fields in science and technology.

Intrinsically, humans are explorers. It is part of our nature to delve into the unknown, to search for answers and to reach for unseen heights. We should not forsake the future for the present. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.” The social and economic promises of a project like BAM are enormous, and they hold symbolic value, as well. We have cured diseases, traveled to the Moon, worked to unravel the very essence of our genetic makeup, sent a rover to Mars, and seen pictures of a planet surface 130 million miles away. The brain is the next, perhaps most important, frontier, and investment in exploration, scientific understanding, and progress is exactly the kind of legacy our government should seek to leave behind.

Riley K. Carney ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.

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