The brain is a difficult, but not impossible, thing to map. Fortunately, scientists believe that the tools and techniques necessary to peer into the deepest corners of the brain without surgery already exist.
Such an enterprise could unlock mysteries of brain function and brain maladies, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but at the cost of 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 and, according to The New York Times, wants the United States to embark on an ambitious, decadelong initiative in this essential area. The Brain Activity Map project, which could be formally unveiled in March, would be underwritten by a partnership of federal agencies, foundations and teams of scientists and laboratories. Companies as diverse as Microsoft, Google and Qualcomm would also provide talent, technology and other resources.
The federal contribution would be an estimated $300 million annually. The plan already 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 was easier than charting what is arguably the most complex structure in the universe.
Besides the high returns expected on every dollar of investment, mapping the brain would stimulate advances in artificial intelligence along with unprecedented medical breakthroughs that will improve the health of millions of people around the world.
The new treatments for degenerative brain diseases alone will make the relatively small federal investment the deal of the 21st century. Congress must not allow its budget impasse with the White House to get in the way of this major enterprise.