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Mapping the Brain: Something We Can All Cheer

While much of the country’s news “diet” this week has been filled with stories about North Korea, the debate in the U.S. over guns, and the college basketball finals, I was fixed on a story about that most mysterious of human organs — the brain. President Obama staged a White House ceremony to describe an ambitious project his administration is launching to map the brain and better understand how it does its job.

The United States started working on putting a man in space in the 1950s under President Eisenhower, followed by President Kennedy’s goal of a man on the moon, culminating with the first American astronauts to make that 475-thousand mile round-trip safely in 1969. What an exciting time that was.  Unlike some huge advances that grew out of the private sector only, like the light bulb and the telephone, government investment and organization were essential to the Apollo program and its sister projects like the shuttle and the international space station.

Government was also instrumental in the launch of the Internet, which began as a communications system established during the Cold War.  So it is the government that’s going to be putting up the biggest share of money — some $100 million in the coming fiscal year — to join with a few private or nonprofit medical centers to do what National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Frances Collins told my colleague Ray Suarez in February. “Right now, we can measure the activity of a single brain cell, a neuron, and see when it fires, or we can look at the whole brain in pictures…MRI scans, PET scans,” Collins said. “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.”

Collins summed it up: “…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…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…right now.”  More than mapping, Collins and other scientists and physicians want to find out why the brain sometimes doesn’t work right — what happens in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, autism and traumatic brain injury, as well as countless other neurological problems people have.

As the mother of a grown son with a traumatic brain injury, I couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of finding out how to repair even a small part of the damage that changed his life. Perhaps it will come in time to make a difference for him. Certainly it will come in time to help others in the future with similar injuries. 
President Obama made the goal sound long overdue when he announced the initiative at the White House this week.  “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 between our ears.”

Unlocking a mystery that will lead to easing a world of heartache.  That’s something we can all cheer.

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