No-brainer: The nation must invest in a new kind of mapping

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President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $100 million to start an intricate brain-mapping project that would likely lead to better ways to treat brain disorders such as Alzheimer's, epilepsy, autism and traumatic brain injury.

The decision to fund the so-called BRAIN Initiative is a no-brainer. Congress should approve the president's request without taking money from other vital medical research programs, as some Republican leaders have suggested. Cuts in medical research will lead to fewer scientific breakthroughs and technological discoveries. Past examples include heart transplants, cardiopulmonary bypasses and links between dietary fat, cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

Brain disease affects 1 in 6 Americans, or 50 million people. It cost the nation an estimated $500 billion last year. New research should uncover ways to treat, cure and even prevent brain disorders.

The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) project would develop technology to record the electrical activity of individual cells and complex neural circuits in the brain. That includes 100 billion cells and trillions of connections.

Projects such as this one represent government at its best, working with academia and business to reap broad economic and social benefits. BRAIN could improve the lives of billions of people around the world for generations to come, alleviating suffering and reducing the enormous costs of treatment and long-term care for brain-related disorders.

As such projects turn genetic research into a major industry, they also create tens of thousands of jobs, supporting the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. Private companies, universities and philanthropists would partner with federal agencies, attracting some of the world's top scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to their programs.

The American-led Human Genome Project, authorized by Congress in 1990, has created diverse technologies, including tailored drug therapies for cancer. There are no better examples of the stupidity of automatic, across-the-board budget cuts under the so-called sequester -- including $85 billion this year alone -- than reductions to medical research.

President Obama has failed to reach an agreement with Republicans to repeal the sequester, which will cut about $2.4 billion from NIH's budget this year alone, forcing a loss of 33,000 U.S. jobs. Meanwhile, China, India, the European Union and Russia plan to increase their research investments, despite strained budgets.

The $100 million seed money for the BRAIN Initiative is a minuscule part of the federal budget. It would cost less than repairing and rebuilding a mile of urban freeway. Budgets are about setting priorities. That's what Americans pay the president and Congress to do.

Medical research is an investment in the nation's future. It must be protected.

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