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Scientist: White House brain project among most ambitious

10:38 AM, Apr 3, 2013   |    comments
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(CBS News) -- For Thomas Jefferson, it was the Louisiana territories. For John F. Kennedy, the moon.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced a mission to explore and map another frontier filled with mystery and possibility.

It is what makes us human: A lump of 100 billion cells that allows us to think and to dream.

"We can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears," Obama said.

The president proposed a $100 million mission to begin mapping the activity in the human brain. The partnership between government, private industry and universities is so ambitious it could take a century to complete and cost billions more. 

Kandel said the research potentially leads to an understanding of "who we are as human beings and how we function and how these terrible diseases arise, and what we might be able to do address them more effectively."

Dr. Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his research on the brain.

"It's responsible for everything that we are: Our thinking, our beliefs, our hopes, our aspirations, our creativity," Kandel said. "But it is also the source of many of the major diseases that haunt mankind: Alzheimers disease, Parkinsons disease - the list goes on and on."

A half century ago, President Kennedy set the nation's gaze skyward. That, says Dr. Kandel, is infinitely more ambitious.

"Going to the moon - I don't mean to in any way minimize it - was in part an engineering project. This [brain research] is going into the unknown. This is like Columbus discovering America, if you will," Kendel said.

A voyage of discovery - not to the stars, but to how we understand the stars.