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Obama launches effort to map the human brain

President Obama on Tuesday unveiled a $100 million research initiative to map the human brain — an effort scientists hope will lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injuries.

The president said the initiative would stimulate economic growth and lead to “jobs we haven’t even dreamt up yet.”

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The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative will bring together public and private institutions to pursue research. The White House likened it to the Human Genome Project, which Obama said returned $140 for every $1 invested.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) endorsed the new initiative.

“Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be funding, by reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research into expanded medical research, including the expedited mapping of the human brain,” he said in a statement. “It's great science.”

Obama will commit $100 million to the program beginning in 2014.

At the White House on Tuesday, he touted the government’s history of successful public-private partnerships, arguing that government investment in academic lab work, grants, patents and loans for experiments have led to innovations like computer chips, GPS tracking systems and the Internet, as well as successful American business stories, like Google.

While the project is a rare example of Obama-Cantor comity, Obama’s address included a criticism of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.

Obama said the cuts “threaten to set us back before we even get started,” and that it would “hold back a generation of young scientists.”

Congressional Republicans want the sequester to be replaced with other spending cuts, including cuts to entitlement reforms, while Obama demanded that tax hikes be a part of the replacement bill.

The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will be involved in the BRAIN project, along with the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md. The White House touted the effort as evidence of its commitment to science, technology and better patient care.

“Significant breakthroughs in how we treat neurological and psychiatric disease will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds,” the White House said in a memo.

“This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science and engineering.”

Obama mentioned his desire to boost funding for brain research during his State of the Union address in February, calling for “a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”

“Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful,” he said. “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.”

Obama expounded on the benefits of the initiative Tuesday, saying it could also lead to breakthroughs in stroke recovery, autism, the reversal of traumatic brain injuries, in connecting prosthetic limbs to neural functions, and breaking down language barriers.

“We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions but billions of people on this planet…in this brain initiative alone,” Obama said. “It’s going to require us as a country to embody and embrace that spirit of discovery that makes America, America.”