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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2013

Mind over mystery

The brain is difficult, but not impossible, to map. Nanotechnologists and neuroscientists believe that the tools and techniques needed to peer into the deepest corners of the brain without surgery already exist.

Such an enterprise could unlock many of the mysteries of brain function and brain maladies, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. That would cost billions of dollars; leading researchers may have the desire and talent to map the brain, but does the nation have the will?

The Obama Administration does. It wants the nation to embark on an ambitious, decade-long initiative to gather knowledge in this essential area.

The Brain Activity Map project, which could be formally unveiled next month, would be underwritten by a partnership of federal agencies, private foundations, and teams of scientists and laboratories around the country. Companies as diverse as Microsoft, Google, and Qualcomm would provide talent, technology, and other resources.

The federal contribution would be an estimated $300 million annually. The plan is drawing comparisons to the Human Genome Project and NASA’s Cold War-era space race.

In many ways, putting a man on the moon nearly a half-century ago and mapping the genome were easier than charting what is arguably the most complex structure in the universe. But aside from the high returns expected on the investment, mapping the brain would stimulate advances in artificial intelligence, along with medical breakthroughs that would improve the health of millions of people around the world.

New treatments for degenerative brain diseases alone will make the relatively small federal investment the deal of the century. Congress must not allow its budget impasse with the White House to get in the way of this major enterprise.

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