What The Two Huge Brain Studies Will Tell Us About How We Think

The Obama Administration just announced huge funding for a project to study the brain. In Europe, they’re spending billions. But it’s not a race: The two studies are working on different things–both of which will make us understand better how the mysterious organ works.

What The Two Huge Brain Studies Will Tell Us About How We Think
Allen Institute for Brain Science

A massive investment in a moon shot research effort to create a better map of the human brain: That describes both Obama’s $100 million BRAIN Initiative, and the pan-European Human Brain Project, which received some $1.3 billion from the European Commission in January. The dual announcements give the appearance of a lopsided competition. But, according to a scientist I spoked with who is working on both, they’re actually complementary.


Christof Koch would have been at the White House announcement, if not for a can’t-miss once-a-year board meeting. Koch is the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a Paul Allen-backed venture that will spend $60 million a year on projects related to Obama’s BRAIN Initiative as one of four “private sector partners.” But he’s also one of 11 American “collaborators” on the Human Brain Project. He frames the difference between the two projects as one of simulation versus experimentation.

This close-up image reveals neural connections from the primary somatosensory cortex to the brain’s other hemisphere. Allen Institute for Brain Science.

“[The Europeans] want to model the brain: Writing down various equations from physics to describe the dynamics of the brain and its components,” Koch told me. “That’s very different from trying to build technology that will actually map out the brain in reality.” You can think of the brain like a system of tectonic plates, and phenomena like Alzheimer’s as earthquakes. “It’s like the difference between trying to understand the geophysics of tectonic plates and modeling the plate tectonics on a computer,” he said. “Those are two very different things.”

For their work on the BRAIN Initiative, Koch says the Allen Institute is focused on improving the technology for examining the brain: going, for example, from sampling 1,000 neurons to sampling 10,000 neurons. That work feeds in to that of the Human Brain Project, according to Koch, because data acquired with those new technologies can then be incorporated in the Europeans’ simulations.

Although Koch is bullish about the near-term applications for all of this research, saying he thinks it will impact patients in the next five years, he also emphasizes that it is a massive, long-term project. The endgame is also much less clear than “solving Alzheimer’s” or sequencing the human genome–a project to which it is often compared.

“There’s not a single goal like the race to the moon with the Soviets,” said Koch. “There it was very clear: You want to land a man safely on the moon and bring him back. Here we don’t have that goal.”

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.