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Obama Initiative Leverages Big Data to Explore the Brain

On Tuesday, April 2, President Obama announced a research initiative that has the ambitious goal of “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain,” according to a White House press release.

Know as BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), the initiative is being launched in FY 2014 with an initial budget of about $100 million, a modest amount given the project’s goals.

In short, BRAIN is designed to help researchers find “…new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.” Included is support for new technologies that will allow researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact in real time.

This is a foray into Big Data. The initiative will let researchers amass and analyze the data needed to “…explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.”

Among the many public and private organizations involved in the effort are the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF in particular is leading the charge in applying the technologies and techniques of Big Data to the initiative.

The National Science Foundation will play an important role in the BRAIN Initiative because of its ability to support research that spans biology, the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences,” according to the White House release. “The National Science Foundation intends to support approximately $20 million in FY 2014 in research that will advance this initiative, such as the development of molecular-scale probes that can sense and record the activity of neural networks; advances in ‘Big Data’ that are necessary to analyze the huge amounts of information that will be generated, and increased understanding of how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain.”

In a story in Information Week posted the same day, senior editor J. Nicholas Hoover, writes, “On a conference call with reporters after the President’s announcement, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said that the brain-mapping initiative might eventually require the handling of yottabytes of data. A yottabyte is equal to a billion petabytes.”

That’s Big Data at its mind-boggling best.

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