Government to Search for Brain’s Buy Button?

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NIH Brain MapOK, there’s not really a buy button in the brain waiting to be discovered. But the U.S. government is, in fact, launching a major project to create a detailed map of the human brain. Much like the earlier and highly successful Human Genome Project, the Brain Activity Map will be a national project to determine brain functions with a high level of detail.

Some of the resources being brought to bear include the $40 million NIH Human Connectome Project, new computational tools from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and $300 million in software from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. According to the Wall Street Journal, the project will “bring together theoreticians, experimentalists and data-storage experts who can pool resources, share data and accelerate the development of tools in brain research.”

One of the hopes of the project is to measure brain activity at the neuron level, perhaps measuring the activity of thousands of neurons at the same time. This is in sharp contrast to current neuromarketing technology, which records externally measured brain electrical activity (EEG) or activity in larger brain areas (fMRI).

President Obama made a brief reference to brain mapping in his latest State of the Union address, which bodes well for funding prioritization. The project could take up to 15 years to complete.

While the researchers are unlikely to stumble across any buy buttons, I expect to see other benefits for neuromarketers. Greater understanding of how individual areas of the brain function should lead to better interpretive tools for current data collection techniques, and new, more precise activity measurement tools will almost certainly be developed.

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12 Comments

  1. Ron Wright
    Twitter: Sands_Research
    says

    Roger –

    As my last name denotes my political feelings, I still believe this a great opportunity for the US government to take the lead in a major research / development project. I see it as our generation’s transcontinental railroad effort. Not only the knowledge gained but just think of its impact on business. The Human Genome Project created hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs in the USA.

    Do not discount the present technology used in neuromarketing, i.e. EEG and fMRI. These are the major existing tools for measuring brain function and have always advanced with improvements from the computing / tech industry. If it wasn’t for the computer gaming video boards, you would never have seen the pretty 3D spinning brain images. Gaming made this cheap and easy. Non-invasive brain function measuring systems will always have a place and it is this area that neuromarketing firms are pushing the envelope (more than in academic research).

    All of us will need to get behind this proposal to see it survive and become reality.

    Best
    Ron Wright
    CEO / Sands Research Inc.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      I agree, Ron, the implications for the neuromarketing business could be huge (even if that’s not the primary aim of the project).

      Roger

  2. Troy says

    I’m all for big brains and such but considering the economic sewer our country is in, I have to question whether this is the ‘smartest’ use of the U.S. citizens’ money. Basic and fiscally sound economics would advise paying your bills before “buying new toys.” I suspect (net) taxpaying citizens would consider getting the money (?billions?) refunded back to them, to be a rather smart move. Who is overseeing the project and how are they going to be held accountable for results? Who stands to gain mo$t? Call me jaded by past poor performance of those elected to guard our nation’s welfare, but this makes me scratch my head.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      I hear you, Troy. I totally agree that spending is and unsustainable at current levels. At the same time, big science (Human Genome Project, NASA, etc.) is one of the few things government does passably well. Compared with Medicare spending, this is a drop in the bucket – in fact, the spinoffs from this work might well reduce future Medicare expenses.

      Roger

  3. Gemma Holloway says

    Very exciting news! An understanding of this could bring an understanding of CRO and user experience to a whole other level. Shame it is going to take around 15 years to complete – But as they say, good things come to those who wait!

  4. Ron Wright
    Twitter: Sands_Research
    says

    Gemma –
    They estimated the same time frame for the Human Genome Project, however, discoveries came in much more rapidly then 15 years.

    Troy –
    Considering my nickname in politics was “Ronnie Wright-winger”, I feel for your concern about spending and the federal government. (Most States are getting their budgets together due to balance budget laws). But I agree with Roger, that the economic benefit for nations to finance big projects comes back in wealth and technical progress for the country as a whole many times over. (Think of Spain’s financing of the new world ventures also). If it is easier to accept, think of it as a small Dept. of Defense project (DARPA is involved).

    Best
    Ron

  5. Cody Hind
    Twitter: SamuraiTradingA
    says

    This will be fascinating to follow. I often think of the human brain as being so complex that it is way beyond our ability to truly understand now or even in the quite distant future.

    I know this research isn’t really about having a “complete” understanding though, and is just creating the map that will hopefully open up new areas for research. Many of the developments that have come from the Human Genome Project have been incredible and it seems like so many new breakthroughs are right on the horizon because of it.

    Hopefully you keep on top of this with your blog because it should make for some very interesting reading down the road.

  6. Shelob says

    Just brain activity however isn’t enough, right?

  7. Ron Wright
    Twitter: Sands_Research
    says

    Shelob –

    The term “activity” used in the title of the project, “Brain Activity Map”, refers to brain function so it actually is a very broad area of study.

    Ron

  8. Jane Bromley
    Twitter: JBromley
    says

    Really interesting- the US government aims to understand what triggers purchase decisions! A bit scary too.

    I recently heard how Obama used an in depth understanding of what search terms US citizens used most to construct speeches that would most inspire them. I guess maybe this is a next step.

    Roger- do you know why they are focusing on this versus what drives business or personal success for example? Could they be planning to train their business leaders do you think?

  9. Roger Dooley
    Twitter: rogerdooley
    says

    I think the current project is purely scientific and medical in nature, Jane. While commercial opportunities will no doubt arise from the discoveries that will likely occur, I don’t think the government is preparing for business training. Or mind control, as interesting as that might be to some politicians. 🙂

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