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National Neuroscience Effort Zooms In On Brain Circuits

When President Barack Obama announced an ambitious national effort to map the human brain earlier this year, some scientists criticized the project for being too vague. But now, leading scientists tasked with steering the BRAIN Initiative are beginning to sketch out more specific goals.

Aired 9/18/13 on KPBS News.

When President Obama announced an ambitious national effort to map the human brain earlier this year, some scientists criticized the project for being too vague, but the BRAIN Initiative is beginning to sketch out more specific goals.

Salk Institute

Computational neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute is one of the San Diego researchers spearheading President Obama's Brain Initiative.

It's still too early to map out all the connections between the brain's billions of neurons. First, scientists will have to zoom in and try to understand how a few thousand or million neurons work together in neural circuits.

That's the conclusion of a report published Monday recommending how federal dollars should be spent in the next year. The Salk Institute's Terry Sejnowski is one of the prominent San Diego researchers who helped draft it.

He said that as the BRAIN Initiative gets off the ground, federal grants should focus on solving "how neurons work together to produce things that are familiar to us. Like being able to see and hear, and being able to plan and make decisions — these are all things that are really mysterious right now."

Currently there isn't a great way to study neural circuits, Sejnowski said. That's what the BRAIN Initiative will hope to fix in its first year.

There was much fanfare when President Obama first announced this initiative back in April. He claimed the project could one day cure brain diseases like Alzheimer's. Reaction to these more targeted goals has been mixed.

But it's becoming clear that, for now, neuroscientists will have to focus on more modest goals. Some are pleased to see this project take on more realistic aims. Others think this proves the BRAIN Initiative promised too much.

The National Institutes of Health plans to further hone the BRAIN Initiative's focus by hearing feedback at the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference this November in San Diego.

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