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Obama's $100 million effort to map the human brain suspended by government shutdown

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President Barack Obama (Pete Souza/White House via Flickr)
President Barack Obama (Pete Souza/White House via Flickr)

The US government's shutdown has put about 800,000 people out of work, and caused stoppages at NASA, the Department of Health and Human services, the CIA and NSA, and nearly every other federal agency. Now the start of the Obama Administration's Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which was set to officially begin early next year, is in jeopardy too. The BRAIN project is already an ambitious one running on a tight schedule — $100 million is to be set spent in 2014 to start the daunting task of trying to map the human brain. But now, due to the government's failure to pass a federal budget, BRAIN has been indefinitely placed on hold, putting the effort's start and its progress as a decade-long process at serious risk.

"This is no way to run a government."

Bill Newsome, one of BRAIN's co-chairs and a Stanford University professor, told Popular Science that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was set to spend the first $40 million of the project's budget. That money is supposed to hire scientists to begin working on understanding normal brain functions, he said. "Those understandings of brain function are critical to understanding what goes wrong in neurological and psychiatric disorders," Newsome said. "Every month and year we delay in getting this going are going to have consequences." The setbacks will, of course, also delay the discoveries of potential therapies that could come out of the research initiative — which aims to map the brain as a means to develop new technologies that could help fight diseases such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy.

Several private research organizations have pledged money to the project over the next 10 years, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Fountation — both of which are also dealing with the shutdown — are involved too. But the NIH is where the project begins, Newsome explained to Popular Science. "To write good proposals, to get them evaluated, to get the money committed "It's pretty much a disaster." for this next year flowing, that’s a long process — even with the NIH process moving at warp speed, it takes the better part of a year," he said. "We on the working group, we delivered our end of the bargain. NIH wants to deliver on its end of the bargain, but they simply can't do it if they're sitting at home on an unwanted furlough."

Newsome said that he isn't even able to get email responses from NIH officials to talk about all the ways that the shutdown will impact BRAIN. "The whole thing is just at a complete standstill. I don’t know what to say," he said. "I just know that this is no way to run a government, and it's no way to run support for science… it's pretty much a disaster."