Brain project would be big gig for Lincoln lab

2013-02-22T03:55:00Z Brain project would be big gig for Lincoln labBy KEVIN ABOUREZK / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

A Lincoln-based brain research laboratory plans to fight for a share of a $10 billion brain mapping project that the White House is expected to unveil in March.

As the leading institution in a Big Ten brain research initiative, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior is positioned strongly to win funds awarded through the federal Brain Activity Map project, center Director Dennis Molfese said.

"There are a lot of great things about (President Barack) Obama's brain-mapping plan," he said. "We're hoping to make contributions to the program and compete for federal funds."

Obama is expected to announce the ambitious project next month as part of his budget proposal, the New York Times recently reported. The decadelong effort will involve federal agencies, private foundations and scientists who will work collaboratively to advance the knowledge of the brain and find ways to treat mental illness and brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The initiative will look a lot like the Human Genome Project, a $3.8 billion, 13-year effort that sought to map the human genome. That project, which ended in 2003, returned $800 billion to the U.S. economy, according to a federal study.

Obama referred to the brain-mapping project in his Feb. 12 State of the Union Address.

"Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's; developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful," he said.

In January, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved establishing the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior inside the East Stadium addition to Memorial Stadium. Molfese said construction on the addition is a month ahead of schedule and likely will be finished by late June.

It will house equipment that will allow researchers to study the brain through a variety of methods. That equipment will include EEG systems that can track the speed at which the brain responds and give information about what brain areas are active and the order in which they become active.

The center will feature a whole-body MRI machine that can show images of brain functions and then connect those images with certain activities.

Molfese is one of 20 scientists charged by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine with studying concussions in youth sports and reporting their findings to Congress and Obama this summer.

"We know some about college, less about high school sports injuries," he said. "We know even less about grade school, junior high."

He has spent much of his more than 40-year career studying how infants' brains function and the effects of injuries on them.

The Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior is at the forefront of a partnership between the Big Ten and the Ivy League to study concussions in student athletes, Molfese said.

Five Big Ten universities, including UNL, the University of Michigan, Penn State University, Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have committed $100,000 each to the conference's brain-mapping effort, Molfese said. That money will support efforts to beef up the participating research laboratories, he said.

And the UNL center plans to hire three scientists soon, he said.

"Getting off of ground zero really takes some resources," he said. "It's really unprecedented what we're trying to do."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow us on Twitter