Building a Brain Trust

Scientist Addresses UCSB Audience About Brain-Mapping Project

When, during his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama mentioned that every dollar spent on the Human Genome Project yielded $143 in business activity, he was sending a coded message. His budget would include funding ​— ​$100 million, he would later announce ​— ​for a project to build a map of the human brain that includes all 86 billion neurons. “Each of us in our own little offices fell off our chairs,” Dr. Ralph Greenspan told an audience of UCSB professors and students last week about the small group of scientists who pitched the White House on the project with a white paper that included a passage on the return of investment on the genome map.

Associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UC San Diego, Greenspan visited the South Coast recruiting disciples to his cause. The good news, he said, is that neuroscience is de rigueur among politicians left and right. “Everybody admires the brain, whether they have one or not,” he said. The money would be administered by three federal agencies, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health.

The reason an image of the entire brain is crucial to science, he explained with some level of technicality, is that human ​— ​and other animal ​— ​activity is not related to single cells but to groups or populations of cells. Furthermore, different regions of the brain are constantly communicating with each other. “The system level,” he said, “is where the pay dirt is.” Besides new knowledge, he argued, “Big Science” prompts new technologies, new medical therapies, and new businesses. Along with the genome map, he invoked the War on Cancer in the 1970s, which obviously did not eradicate cancer but did give birth to the biotechnology sector.

With the likelihood of federal funding actually materializing, Greenspan is seeking the input of as many institutions as possible, including UCSB. “We want to form partnerships anywhere,” he said.

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