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Mapping a Bolder Plan for the Brain

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The European Union, in funding and supporting the Human Brain Project (HBP), has laid out a bold plan with enormous potential to help us understand the body's most complex organ. I support this effort and commend their visionary approach to solving what we all acknowledge is one of our world's greatest challenges.

Here in the United States I have been engaged in our country's counterpart to HBP, leading the charge to create the Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience (IWGN), which directly led to the establishment of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative last year.

Though the two projects differ in their approach and end goals, they are both valuable and necessary efforts -- programs that I hope someday are united as we work towards greater international collaborations around neuroscience research.

The scientists that offered critiques of the Human Brain Project in an open letter last month should be reminded of what Albert Einstein once said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

This type of thinking has led us to the current state of the field: one that still lacks much more than a rudimentary comprehension of the human brain.

When it comes to neuroscience, bold must be the norm -- not the exception. The Human Brain Project is large and ambitious, and as a result has the potential to be a disruptive force in a field that for far too long has been narrowly focused on an incremental approach.

Simulating the brain, as the HBP project intends to do, and mapping the brain as the U.S. initiative proposes, are both fundamental to advancing the field--as are the thousands of other methods and tactics underway in neuroscience research labs across the world.

This is not an either-or proposition. The Human Brain Project can move forward and be successful, while other research models move ahead. We need to support and fund every rational strategy that could make headway in our understanding of the brain. There is too much at stake for the international neuroscience community not to embrace each approach.

The World Health Organization estimates that neurological disorders affect one billion people around the globe. This pronouncement has spurred the G8, under David Cameron's leadership, to make neurological diseases a primary area of focus. And in short, it offers a billion reasons to move forward on all fronts.

The EU and U.S. are not alone in embarking on large-scale human brain projects. In the last two years, important neuroscience efforts have been launched in Australia, Japan, Israel, China, and several other nations. The explosion of international projects can be at least partly contributed to a universal realization that we are at a crossroads in the field, with new advancements in technology and big data fueling a growing enthusiasm in the area, while expanding our research capacities.

In recent weeks I had the opportunity to meet and speak with EU Commission President, José Manuel Barroso. We discussed our mutual interest in neuroscience and looked ahead to the fall when we will have an opportunity to solidify joint efforts between the EU, United States, and Israel, and achieve greater progress on our shared objectives.

This is not a time to deride others working towards the same goal, but rather a moment to embrace new paradigms, while encouraging cooperation and collaboration. It is only with this mindset that we will be successful.

Congressman Chaka Fattah is architect of the Fattah Neuroscience Initiative, an innovative, non-incremental policy initiative designed to make major progress in understanding the human brain by intensifying, in a collaborative fashion, federal research efforts across brain disease, disorder, injury, cognition and development.