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President Obama Taps San Diego Neuroscientists for Brain Mapping Initiative

Evening Edition

Aired 4/3/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUEST:

Terry Sejnowski, Neuroscientist, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Transcript

What do GPS technology, the Internet and CT scans have in common?

They all came about in part through government funding. Federal research money has helped scientists answer questions that would've seemed outlandish just decades ago — questions like: what's in the soil on Mars?

Aired 4/2/13 on KPBS News.

Scientists still don't fully understand what's going on inside the human brain. But thanks to a robust White House initiative, local researchers could help get us closer to answering that basic question.

But, as President Barack Obama noted Tuesday, scientists still don't fully know the answer to one age-old question: What exactly is going on inside the human brain?

"The BRAIN initiative will change that," he said, announcing a 10-year research effort that will enlist the country's top neuroscientists to map activity in the human brain.

The Obama administration wants to do that "by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action, and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember."

Salk Institute

Researchers can currently observe small groups of neurons firing in real-time. But they're hoping to get bigger pictures by developing better brain imaging technology through the BRAIN initiative.

Calling this one of the 21st Century's "grand challenges," the President compared the BRAIN initiative to the Human Genome Project and the Apollo moon missions.

He said the project could lead to more effective treatments for brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and autism, better prosthetic limbs and computers that read our thoughts.

Aside from these borderline science-fiction applications, the BRAIN initiative stands to create lots of new jobs. Obama said this effort will help counteract cuts triggered by sequestration, which he fears could “hold back a generation of young scientists.”

San Diego's Salk Institute is one of the private sector partners helping to fund BRAIN, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

Salk is chipping in $28 million to kickstart the initiative. Neuroscience is still a relatively young field, but Salk professor Terry Sejnowski says now is the perfect time to launch a project of this scale.

"The technology is much better," he said. "There are resources we didn't have before."

Sejnowski attended the White House announcement along with UC San Diego's Ralph Greenspan, another key BRAIN initiative architect.

KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment

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