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UC San Diego Researcher Would Help Lead Obama’s Brain Activity Map Project

The announcement on Monday that President Barack Obama hopes to launch a 10-year initiative to map the human brain caught many by surprise. That includes Ralph Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute at UC San Diego, who would be one of the leaders of the project.

A local researcher from UC San Diego would be one of the leaders of the Brain Activity Map project proposed by President Obama.

Photo credit: UC San Diego

Ralph Greenspan, the associate director of the Kavli Institute at UC San Diego, is pictured in this undated photo.

“I fell off my chair," he said. "I didn’t know it had been decided yet. We knew that it was under discussion, and we knew that there was some interest, but we really didn’t know that they had decided it was something really worthwhile.”

The initiative is being called the Brain Activity Map project, and is likened to the Human Genome Project, but for brains instead of genetics.

Obama hopes to unveil it as early as March, and is expected to include it in his budget proposal, according to The New York Times. It is not clear where exactly the funding would come from, although the National Institutes of Health would be one likely source.

Greenspan said the idea started during a conference for neuroscientists and nanoscientists put on by the Kavli Foundation a year and a half ago.

"After two days of sort of talking at each other, at the end of the second day, this one guest who was a veteran of the Human Genome Project got up and said, 'well I've heard you all say what you can do, but I haven't heard any of you say what you really want to do, that you don't yet see how to do,'" he said. "One of the neuroscientists perked up and said, 'I want to be able to record from every nerve cell in the brain at the same time. So that got a group of about six of us all fired up."

Those six scientists, including Greenspan, wrote an article in June that proposed new approaches for mapping the brain.

Greenspan said the project would help answer lots of questions about how the brain works, "from things as simple as how you move your finger to things as complicated as understanding economics.”

The project would also help understand what has gone wrong in brains of people with psychiatric diseases and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Greenspan said another hope is that the technology developed to undertake the project would boost the economy.

"Because the technologies that are going to be needed to see all of that are going to require some fancy, science fictiony new kinds of detectors, there will be technological spinoffs from this as well," he said. "That will have economic benefits and will probably be useful in realms that have nothing to do with the brain or with living things."


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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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