Obama's Human Brain Initiative Excites Philly Researchers

The President's initiative could bring money and jobs to region

By Sarah Glover
|  Tuesday, Apr 2, 2013  |  Updated 6:06 PM EDT
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Brain-Mapping Could Bring Money, Jobs

Sarah Glover

Dr. Mijail Serruya is neurologist and clinical researcher at Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience.

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The human brain remains a complex scientific mystery.

President Barack Obama wants to unlock that mystery. He unveiled the BRAIN Initiative, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, at the White House today. Obama's proposal includes $100 million in federal funding for brain research and challenges researchers to map the human mind.

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Brain mapping has been a research focus in Philadelphia at Jefferson, Penn and Drexel. Area researchers expressed excitement about the possibilities that brain mapping can bring for the promotion of neuroscience and economic growth in the region. 

"In order to do a project, you need biologists, physicists, engineers and computer science people to push collaborations," said Amita Sehgal, co-director of the Penn Comprehensive Neuroscience Center.

Dr. Mijail Serruya agrees that Obama's proposal will result in a "pot of money that creates a fund that people will apply for to advance research." Serruya works at Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience as a neurologist and clinical researcher. Serruya sums up his work by saying,  "I treat 8 year-olds with concussions to 80 year-olds with Alzheimer's and everything in between."

Serruya is primarily interested in the study of neurons, which he labeled "the coolest map of all." He is a co-founder of BrainGate, which works to help paralyzed people walk again and have a better way of life. 

"As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears," said Obama. 

Serruya plans to propose a research project and "will certainly apply" for funding. 

Some of the research areas that may benefit from the BRAIN Initiative include Alzheimer's, memory, seizures, anxiety disorders, thinking, language, epilepsy, brain injury and concussions.

"By mapping out the connections of the brain areas, we'll have a better backing to understand how the brain works," said Sehgal.

At Rutgers-Camden's Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, students and faculty members are working to understand how individual biological systems work. One such project is creating a computation model of biological systems. As a result of testing, the model can be revised for better outcomes. 

"We have a good understanding of forces and physics, but a limited understanding of how the brain works," said Joe Martin, a biology professor at Rutgers-Camden. "How do cells work together in such large numbers in the human brain is a huge frontier for neuroscience and biology."

"The impact could be huge. Philly has the talent pool, infrastructure and key ingredients. It will be in the details -- well managed research creates more jobs and more treatments to help people," said Serruya. 

The proposed $100 million is included in the budget that Obama will submit to Congress next week. NBC News reported House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is onboard. According to the White House, the funds will come from the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Institutes of Health. 

"I'm really, really excited about it. This will get more attention from the public and nationwide. It's finally happening -- this is the decade of the brain and figuring out how it works," said Sehgal. 

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