The BRAIN Initiative: a killer app for broadband, health care, and more

Image via Wired.com

A few weeks ago, President Obama announced the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, with the goal of “mapping” the human brain via research examining the mechanisms for brain disease, neurological functionality of the brain, and to better understand how brains work. The BRAIN Initiative presents a promising opportunity not only for expanding the adoption and use of technology in health care and education, but for the design, development, and overall effectiveness of these technologies.  Understanding the complexities and nuances of brain systems at a granular level will enable providers of health care and education technology services to more accurately and individually tailor those services. Additionally, the BRAIN Initiative could plant the seeds for a new generation of apps that will drive investment in broadband networks and demand for faster connectivity, particularly for educational and health care institutions. 

Health Care: Prevention & Individualized Treatment

In health care, rising costs are often attributed to three primary issues: the increased prevalence of chronic diseases; declining quality of care; and a lack of access to quality care. With respect to chronic disease, a brain map could help identify the origins of certain human behaviors that contribute to the onset of preventable diseases.  Therapies could then be developed that better anticipate expected behaviors, leading to more effective treatment regimens, or stop ineffective behaviors altogether. For example, using a brain map to anticipate patients’ cravings for nicotine or sugar could result in treatment strategies to mitigate those cravings, lowering the incidence of chronic diseases that result from long-term smoking or poor diet.

Individuals’ access to care as well as the quality of care provided could also be improved. Brain mapping could enable health care providers to better predict who will need access to care and what kinds of care based on certain brain activity patterns. Technologies could then be developed that address those personalized needs, reducing costs in the process. Brain mapping could also lead to advancements in treating brain disease. A recent study from the RAND Corporation found that the costs of caring for dementia patients are higher today than the cost of treating cancer or heart disease, a number that’s forecasted to double by 2040, after the Baby boom generation has retired. Effective prevention or treatments for Alzheimer’s disease (the most common dementia for people 65 and older) could deliver further cost savings.

Education: Leaving No Child Behind through Individually-Tailored Learning Plans

In education, a brain map could identify how students learn, process, store, and retrieve information.  A brain map could help demonstrate how children respond – or don’t respond – to certain teaching styles, curriculums, testing and assessment methods. Using this information, education curriculums could be designed at an increasingly personalized level to accommodate a variety of learning styles. Schools could better target teaching resources to meet the needs of individual students, and funding could be targeted toward more effective teaching and learning resources and focused on students demonstrating the most need, eliminating wasteful spending and getting more “bang” for our education “buck.”

Interestingly, a recent study by the National Science Foundation identifying the 14 great engineering challenges of the 21st century noted the importance of moving to “advanced personalized learning” strategies using a combination of better software, new devices (e.g. tablets and other electronic devices), and better network connectivity to tailor learning approaches to fit the way each student learns best. Marrying these technological resources with information about learning patterns from the brain-mapping program could help improve learning outcomes significantly.

Infrastructure: Safer Highways, Bigger Pipes

The potential insights that can be drawn from this brain mapping exercise and their implications extend far beyond health care and education.  In fact, this information could advance technological developments in areas touching every aspect of our lives.  In telematics, for instance, dashboard devices and other vehicle technologies could be developed that complement (and perhaps eventually compensate for) the ways human cognition works. This could reduce tendencies towards distracted driving and help equip manufacturers and service providers with detailed and specific knowledge of how drivers will respond to various internal and external stimuli.  

In addition to improved highway traffic, the BRAIN Initiative could be one of the “killer apps” that paves the way for broadband networks that are faster and have more capacity. We’ve said previously that bandwidth demand drives investment in better networks. In recent months, other providers have made headlines with their announcements of new gigabit consumer networks, but currently there are few if any consumer applications that require consistent ultra-high speed connections. However, the BRAIN Initiative (and other comprehensive, big-data research projects) is likely to produce terabytes or even petabytes of research data, which will require significant storage and computational processing power. Presumably, much of this data processing will be done using cloud services. Anchor institutions like universities and hospitals will no doubt need considerable bandwidth to access brain map data. High-resolution images or real-time video streams of live scans will almost certainly require a fast fiber connection to the hospital, or to the doctor evaluating brain scans.

Bigger data will require bigger bandwidth, and it’s these kinds of projects that spur innovation that drive growth and investment in broadband technologies themselves. 

Image via Wired.com