Brushing aside the impact of automatic budget cuts, President Obama on Tuesday proposed $100 million in spending on a human brain research program that he said could develop new ways to treat autism, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury.
"As humans, we can identify galaxies light-years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter that sits between our ears," Mr. Obama told scientists and researchers at the White House.
The proposal, to be included in Mr. Obama's federal budget next week, would boost studies into how the brain works with money from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation.
The president said that, in spite of the so-called "sequester" budget cuts that took effect March 1, the nation can't afford to cut back on scientific research.
"Ideas are what power our economy," Mr. Obama said. "It's so important that we think about basic research generally as a driver of growth, and that we replace the across-the-board budget cuts that are threatening to set us back before we even get started. We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead."
The White House has dubbed the program the Brain Initiative (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), and it follows up Mr. Obama's State of the Union address, where he called for more investment in research and development.
The National Institutes of Health will establish a working group co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University and Dr. William Newsome of Stanford University to define detailed scientific goals for the NIH's investment and to develop a multiyear scientific plan for achieving these goals.
The president acknowledged that government-funded research projects "don't always pay off."
"But when they do, they change our lives in ways that we could never have imagined," he said, pointing to the Internet and computer chips.
"Think about what we could do once we crack this code," Mr. Obama said. "Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or [post-traumatic stress disorders] for our veterans who are coming home. What if computers could respond to our thoughts, or our language barriers could come tumbling down?"
He said the most promising developments would likely come in the field of medicine.
"We're still unable to cure diseases like Alzheimer's or autism, or fully reverse the effects of a stroke," the president said. "The Brain Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and remember. That knowledge could be, will be, transformative."
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