“Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race”, said Obama in his February State of the Union Address. Photo: Saul Joeb/AFP & Youtube
Rafael Yuste? Never heard of him.
Neither had most of the world until Obama mentioned his project in the State of the Union Address at the White House in February. Since then, he's popped up in places like the New York Times and Nature magazine.
OK. So who is he then?
Well, Dr Rafael Yuste is a Spanish neurologist at Columbia University who's been chosen to head up President Obama's Brain Activity Map Project. This is a massive 15-year research effort which will help us understand — and hopefully cure — diseases like schizophrenia,dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and epilepsy.
Wow! That sounds complex and very pricy.
Indeed it is. If the project gets the green light from the US Congress in 2014, we're talking a multi-billion dollar plan.
But all signs point to Rafa being the man for the job. He's a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience who's been working out of Columbia’s Kavli Institute for Brain Science for the last 16 years.
He's aiming to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for our DNA.
“The Human Genome Project cost $3 billion, and that was 15 years ago,” says Dr. Yuste. “This could be of that scale, or larger.”
How did the project come about?
The idea for the Brain Activity Map was born in a workshop in England in 2011 in a brainstorming meeting between neuroscientists and nano scientists and physicists. Since then, they've been talking with government officials and science administrators and they drew up a proposal for Obama.
Tell me more about this Brain Activity Map project.
Dr Yuste says the first five years will be all about mapping the activity of every neuron in worms, fruit flies, and mice. After 10 years, his team hopes to capture everything that goes on in the cerebral cortex.
Fifteen years from now, they hope technology will be good enough to start reconstructing the activity of the human brain.
So why are they doing it?
Professor Yuste says: “In a way, it’s like trying to fix a car that’s broken. You can’t fix the car unless you understand how it works…then we can tackle these diseases and find cures for them.”
His fascination for the brain stems back to his times as a doctor in Madrid, where he used to study schizophrenic patients.
“We don’t understand how the brain works. It has 100 billion neurons, and it makes us what we are. Out of the activity of these neurons comes our personality, our minds. Everything that we are is a reflection of the activity of these neurons.”
Yuste and his team believe their mind-blowing project will help scientists diagnose and treat diseases that affect a billion people worldwide.