neuroscience | February 24, 2013

Obama's Brain Activity Map Is a Good Investment: David Eagleman, NYT Op-Ed

In a New York Times Op-Ed, neuroscience speaker David Eagleman says that when it comes to what we know about our brains, we've barely scratched the surface. That's why he believes that President Obama's plan to pour a cool $3 billion into neuroscience research will be a valuable investment. The initiative, known as the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, will bring together the brightest neuroscientists today to better understand the activity in our brains. The implications for what we can find out are boundless, and, as Eagleman says: "brain health, drug rehabilitation, computer intelligence, adaptive devices—these economic drivers would lavishly pay back any investment in brain research."

Despite the fact that we have greatly improved our ability to diagnose problems with the physical health of our brains, we have yet to fully understand how to rectify these problems. A better understanding of the way our brains operate can help us treat diseases of the mind more effectively. Addressing brain health can also improve societal conditions. For example, he notes that "a deeper understanding of mental illness will improve early detection, resources and rehabilitation, potentially helping us find a way to stop using our prisons as a de facto mental health care system." Even further, unlocking the nuances of a drug addict's brain activity can help us combat the "demand" part of the war on drugs equation (when we've typically focused mainly on "supply").

Finally, this initiative can usher in a new era in technological advancement and bio-inspired machinery. The quest to create artificial intelligence has been met with limited success to date, but Eagleman suggests that the "most promising hope" for achieving that goal is by "figuring out how natural intelligence works." If we can understand the complexities of the human mind, and how it does the amazing things it does, we can possibly create devices that are self-configuring. When damaged, your brain can "rewire itself to take over responsibility for the parts that are missing" and it is "the only functioning example of such futuristic machinery on our planet," Eagleman writes. He then asks us to "imagine a future in which we capitalize on the principles of neural reconfiguration, producing devices—from smartphones to cars to space stations—that flexibly adapt rather than bust." These are questions that Eagleman tackles in his books, such as Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and keynotes. As a bestselling author and a popular speaker, he presents us with fascinating research on the most complex machine we know—our brains.

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education | February 21, 2013