President Barack Obama officially announced his new brain research initiative last week, with a pledge to put $100 million in his 2014 budget to support work at three federal agencies.

It is a modest but welcome start for an effort that could transform our understanding of how the brain works and help researchers find new ways to treat and prevent brain disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

The ultimate aim is to learn how the brain generates thoughts, dreams, memories, perceptions and other mental images; how it stores and retrieves vast quantities of data; and how it learns from experience or education.

More immediately, the aim is to generate new technologies in data processing, nanotechnology, optogenetics and other esoteric fields to study how billions of brain cells and complex neural circuits interact.

The $100 million will be split among National Institutes of Health, the lead agency for biomedical research; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has a strong interest in treating soldiers with brain injuries; and National Science Foundation, which supports research in numerous fields.

Federal officials say $100 million in the first year will be sufficient to convene expert groups to identify worthwhile projects and to collaborate with private donors who are also pouring millions into brain research.

Some researchers think a higher level of financing — perhaps $300 million in federal support annually — will be needed over the next decade to make substantial progress. For now, Obama’s challenge to the nation’s research community to get started is a big leap forward.

— The New York Times, April 2

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