Before cancer purloined the moonshot moniker, the National Institutes of Health were engaged in a concerted effort to organize an interdisciplinary approach to explore the interior space known as our brain. They were informally calling it the next moonshot. The brain might not be as vast as outer space, but then again...who knows? After all, how do we know if it's even possible to quantify the imagination, which so far seems to be seated in the mind, which is, so it would seem, generated in the brain.
With a $4.5 billion price tag, the BRAIN Initiative is not without controversy, in large part because it monopolizes nearly all of the NIMH's budget and yet is focused not on the immediate needs of persons with mental illness, but on basic neuro- and other sciences. As the National Institute of Mental Health Director Joshua Gordon, MD, PhD, told me, the belief is that the better our understanding of the basic science of our brain, the better will be our policies for addressing mental health as part of public health.
The truth is that unlike our success with putting various humans (and other primates) into outerspace, we really haven't even come close to walking on the metaphorical moon that is our mind, that is our brain. We just kind of see it there in the sky...beautiful, luminous, and sometimes terrifying when storms cross its face.
With our glaring lack of the fundamental biological understanding of the brain, what can we do but treat the symptoms. Currently, the best we can do for our spectrum of mental illnesses is to manage them as chronic disease, and for many, that is possible. But there are plenty for whom the descent into the brain's stormy electrical storms is an endless plunge into alienation.
I agree that 4.5 billion dollars, which is what is the projected amount to be spent on the project by 2025, much of it coming from public--private partnerships, is a forklift-load of money. Get in line to list all the other ways that money could be spent. However, then think of the poetry of the mind merging with the basic scientific understanding of the biology of the brain: To not participate in that would be to miss out on a chance to ride to what might possibly is the last unexplored frontier. Will it open up new worlds or will it mean we jostle to own and claim it?
Better to ask these questions and stay alert now, because no matter what you think of the amount being spent, it will be spent, and research will occur: there are already about 250 scientists from across the specialties, ranging from neuroscience to engineering, and that's just in the US. Other nations are also helping with this seminal exploration. I might not ever fully understand the bench theories that propel these investigators to develop the experiments they do, but I have a brain, and I have a mind, and I am eager to protect it, so I want to be sure that with what they learn, they ask the right questions about how to apply it: can there be mind control? If we splice this gene to end schizophrenia, what else, if anything, is lost in the personality?
There are those like Stamford ethicist Hank T. Greeley, JD, and others urging the world to start thinking of the shifting ethical and legal implications neuroscience poses now, and ever more so in the future. At a recent BRAIN panel discussion for example, Mr. Greeley and others discussed the kinds of questions that need to be answered now that the surgeons among us have declared they are ready and able to conduct head transplants.
What can also happen with this brave new world among us, however, is that where we now see moral failing or even demonic possession in those afflicted with various states of mental illness, we could instead see their illness as simply something to be treated. And we might even have the cure.
Here's my latest story on the BRAIN, including perspectives from neuroscientists Helen Mayberg, MD, at Emory, and Brian Litt, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania.