The economic benefits of mapping the human brain

A real human brain on display.

"What goes on inside our heads?" Perhaps the most basic biological question about humankind. The Obama administration is working on a plan to map human brain activity that may be released next month. Scientists say the decade-long project could spark an explosion in new devices, medical therapies and business opportunities we’ve never dreamed of.

The goal of this project is bold -- understand how the brain works and figure out how to influence, or manipulate the mind. Ralph Greenspan is the associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California, San Diego. He says right now the brain moves too quickly to assess and measure what happens when we play the piano… or recognize a tune.

“And we all believe being able to do that is a key step towards understanding how the brain does what it does,” he says.

If we can unlock the answers to those questions, Greenspan says he and his colleagues can tackle trickier ones, like what’s happening in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia.

“That can lead us towards ways to try to bring back balance where things are out of balance,” says Greenspan.

Greenspan thinks this project will spawn tons of new business for the pharmaceutical industry, of course, and the larger medical field. But the possibilities for high tech may be even greater, says NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus.

“I wrote a piece in the New York Times a few years ago about having Google built into your brain, but for your own thoughts and as we better understand how the brain works, that thing that was kind of a fantasy when I wrote about it a few years ago, that’s going to become a reality,” he says.

This brain mapping project hasn’t been unveiled yet. Scientists believe this initiative could boost the nation’s economic growth substantially. But NYU’s Marcus says if the U.S. doesn’t pour money into the brain, we could lose our intellectual capital.

“The scientist needs money to do their work. And it’s been a tough funding climate here lately,” he says.

Marcus says with the EU pursuing a similar project, the country faces a brain drain if it doesn’t pony up some cash quick.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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