05/17/2013 - 05/21/2013
In April, President Obama announced the new BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, which many hope (expect?) will find the sources of -- and solve -- the mysteries and distress of mental illness and addiction. It will not. It cannot.
Before addressing the BRAIN initiative, let's return to the Human Genome Project -- a similarly massive enterprise whose results are far short of (really, in a totally different universe from) what both laypeople and popular commentators imagined when that project was initiated.
BRAIN was announced just before the 10-year anniversary of the completion of the genome project. On April 14, 2003, scientists announced that they had completed compiling the three billion letters of genetic code that comprise the human genome. As to the function of all this DNA -- not so fast. This long and expensive effort (its initial phase cost perhaps $1 billion, or 10 times the budget for BRAIN) represented only the creation of a framework from which to pursue further research to explore the meaning of the human genome.
Interviewed a decade after the completion of the mapping of the genome, after several more billions had been spent on research, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Eric Greene, summarized what we have learned.
What about the naysayers who asked, "Where are the cures for diseases that we were promised?"
We are understanding cancer and rare genetic diseases. There are incredible stories now where we are able to draw blood from a pregnant woman and analyze the DNA of her unborn child. Increasingly, we have more informed ways of prescribing medicine because we first do a genetic test. We can use microbial DNA to trace disease outbreaks in a matter of hours. These are just game changers. It's a wide field of accomplishment, and there is a logical story to be told.