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Will U.S. Forge Public-Private Partnership to Draw Brain Activity Map?

February 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a decade-long effort to map the activity of the brain. To understand the president's plan and walk through the possible implications, Ray Suarez talks to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who would coordinate much of the project.
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GWEN IFILL: More now on brain science and medical research, as the National Institutes of Health move to break new ground.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: During his State of the Union address, the president suggested for the first time that he will propose a decade-long effort to map the activity of the human brain. No dollar figures have been attached to the project, but scientists suggested it could result in hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually on new research, in much the way the Human Genome Project was funded in the ’90s.

The president connected those two projects as well, making the case for it as economic investment.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, if we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 dollars to our economy, every dollar.

Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project back then. Today, he’s the director of the National Institutes of Health, which would coordinate much of the brain project.

And he joins me now.

Good to have you back.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, National Institutes of Health: Nice to be with you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, there’s research going on in universities around the country, institutions around the world into how the brain works. Why do we need government capital flowing into this area?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Because there’s a new technology opportunity here that wasn’t really present four or five years ago, and the opportunity now exists in the similar way to the Genome Project about 30 years ago to build an enterprise upon new technology involving nanotechnology, optogenetics, some things that are pretty recent, and to be able to understand the brain in the way that we really can’t right now.

Right now, we can measure the activity of a single brain cell, a neuron, see when it fires, or we can look at the whole brain in pictures like you just saw in this segment, MRI scans, PET scans. But a big intermediate zone there where you want to understand entire circuits in the brain and how they function when the brain is actually doing something, that has been out of our reach.

We have not had the ability to do that kind of simultaneous recording of thousands of neurons to see what they’re up to. That’s what this brain activity map is all about.

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like you’re describing an “If we build it, they will come” sort of enterprise. Who would gather underneath that roof, what kind of professionals, what kind of institutions?

FRANCIS COLLINS: There’s growing excitement about this, and not just from the NIH, although we’re quite excited, also from foundations like the Allen Institute, the Kavli Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, also from industry because a lot of this would involve the development of technologies that would have many applications from patient groups, because the whole goal here is to look at the brain and try to understand how sometimes things don’t work the way they’re supposed to.

And the kinds of disciplines you would want involved, engineers, computational experts, because the amount of data will be enormous, biologists, physicians, people who understand nanotechnology and how to create the new kinds of tools we need, all of those working together in an interdisciplinary, focused project still very much in the outlined phase, not yet sort of connected to milestones and deliverables, but we believe the time has come to see what that could look like.

RAY SUAREZ: And how long are we talking about for the life cycle of something like this?

FRANCIS COLLINS: At the moment, I think, to be fair, if you really want to see this play out to the degree of understanding a circuit in the human brain, we’re talking about many years, a decade, maybe 15 years people are talking about, but it will be incremental in terms of the advances.

I mean, let’s be clear. The brain is the most complicated organ in the universe. We have learned a lot about other human organs. We know how the heart pumps and how the kidney does what it does. To a certain degree, we have read the letters of the human genome. But the brain has 100 billion neurons. Each one of those has about 10,000 connections.

So, that means there’s something like 1,000 trillion connections inside your brain and mine right now. And understanding that and how it works when it works well, and what goes wrong in a disease like Alzheimer’s or autism or epilepsy or depression or schizophrenia, those are critical things we need to understand. And it is not going to be an overnight experience to get there.

We have only glimmers of answers to that right now, but this could build a foundation for the future of our understanding of neuroscience that would be going forward for decades to come.

RAY SUAREZ: There may be only glimmers, but it sounds really expensive.

And, right now, we’re in the midst of a battle royal about the spending present and the spending future of the United States government.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, this is my life. As the director of the National Institutes of Health, I have the opportunity to see this amazing array of scientific opportunities. We’re here tonight talking about the brain. We could have a conversation about cancer, about Alzheimer’s disease, about diabetes, about rare diseases, about a vaccine for HIV-AIDS.

All of those potential opportunities are in front of us. Yet, we are also at the time where the biomedical research enterprise supported by NIH has never been under greater stress. We have seen our purchasing power fall by 20 percent in the last 10 years, and now we are looking down the barrel of the sequester, which your program talked about earlier in this hour, which would, on Mar. 1st, remove $1.6 billion dollars for the budget for biomedical research, slowing down many of the things that currently are most exciting.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, whether that happens or not, the sequester, does it usher in a new spirit? When you talk to members of Congress about your future appropriations, are you under more scrutiny, under more skeptical scrutiny, than you were before?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, it’s a difficult time in our country. I get that. The fiscal situation is, clearly, very serious, and so it wouldn’t be responsible of Congress to simply give dollars to anything without asking, are we getting something in return?

But the evidence for medical research is overwhelming, both in terms of advances in health, things like deaths from heart attack down by 60 percent, from stroke by 70 percent. Survival with HIV-AIDS is now almost the normal lifespan. All of those things come out of NIH research. But you can look now to see what’s being supported by our rigorous peer-review process and see also that we’re doing the best science in the world.

And you can also say, OK, is it helping the economy? Because we’re worried about that. Answer, absolutely yes. You heard the president quote the statistic about the Genome Project, that every dollar returned $140 dollars in terms of economic growth in the first few years after the project was completed. That’s a pretty darn good return on the government’s investment.

And let’s be clear. The kind of science we’re talking about with this brain activity map, this wouldn’t happen in the private sector alone. There’s no direct product here that anybody would see as a reason to invest if you’re a stockholder, but it will be something that industry will want to follow closely and build upon.

It’s that wonderful partnership between public and private, emerging here in a new way, with a new horizon in front of it.

RAY SUAREZ: A partnership between public and private. Why shouldn’t it be just private? If there’s such a tremendous potential return, why isn’t the private sector rushing to get ahead of you to do this kind of work?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, because, Ray, the turnaround, the time it takes for that return on investment is unpredictable, and it’s probably not short.

And the private sector, understandably — they have stockholders to answer to — are not going to put hundreds of millions of dollars into something where the return is somewhat uncertain and may not happen for years to come. This is the natural place for the government to invest, just like the Genome Project, where all of that effort was basically funded by the taxpayer, but then resulted in this enormous proliferation of private sector activity that’s transforming medicine.

That’s why we have personalized medicine and many other things, because that partnership worked. It can work here, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Francis Collins of the NIH, thanks for joining us.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Great to be with you, Ray.