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Obama's Brave New World of the Brain -- And Why It's Something America Can't Afford Not to Do!

The brain is at the center of health and well-being, yet our deficit in understanding of the detail of its complexity limits our response to those conditions that cripple so many in our society.
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It has been widely reported by the New York Times that President Obama is expected to announce a wide-ranging initiative to map the human brain.

It is a project that sets an audacious mainstream agenda to explore what has been one of the last frontiers of our understanding of undoubtedly the human body's most critical organ.

Indeed, should the president proceed as speculated by the New York Times, his pronouncement is sure to have the same echoes of past epic agendas set by his predecessors.

Who could forget JFK's eloquent assessment of the challenge of putting a man on the moon? 'We choose to do these things, not because they are easy but because they are hard"

As with most visions, the quest that makes them a reality yields both predicted and unforeseen opportunities. Neither the visionaries nor the critics could foresee space exploration resulting in 6,300 patents for inventions as diverse as rechargeable batteries, smoke detectors and enriched baby food.

Just as space exploration has been criticized as being expensive and a waste of valuable resources, there is no doubt that this latest "big ticket" project will face economic scrutiny.

Coming as it does, with the country poised again on the precipice of the budget debate, there is no doubt that the project's rumored $3 billion price tag will become a well-played political football over coming weeks and months.

In his State of the Union address where he pointed to the importance of brain research, Obama seemed to be sizing up any opposition when he declared, "Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation."

Indeed, ahead of any formal announcement by the president, it is useful to pose the question not whether the United States can afford a multi-billion dollar brain-mapping project but rather, can we afford not to do it?

From a financial and social perspective, the case for the Obama brain mapping project is indeed compelling when you consider the brain-based diseases that cost the United States billions each and every year as well as countless lives.

Take post-traumatic stress disorder in our returned veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan alone, which has cost the U.S. government more than $2 billion in condition management.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates 103,500 returned soldiers suffer from PTSD, costing $8,300 in treatment per year.

In fact, healthcare costs for PTSD veterans are 3.5 times higher than costs for those without the condition.

But the economic cost of PTSD in returned veterans is dwarfed when you consider the impact of attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, where estimates of the annual societal cost in the year 2005 ranged from $36 billion to $52 billion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention breaks down the costs of ADHD in the year 2000 to $1.6 billion in direct treatment, $12.1 billion in other health care costs and $3.7 billion in lost work and productivity costs.

Depression costs the United States even more, with 2000 data showing the economic burden of one of the most costly brain-related illnesses at a staggering $83.1 billion.

Of that, direct medical costs account for about $26 billion, some $51.5 billion in workplace-related costs and more than $5 billion as a result of depression-related suicide.

And those are just three of the most pressing mental health conditions facing the United States.

Consider Alzheimer's, anxiety, mood disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, and schizophrenia, and the cost in human lives and economic burden is largely incalculable.

And as health care costs continue to spiral as people live longer yet sicker lives, the economic realities seem to demand a project of the scale that the president is said to be considering.

As greater understanding of the brain builds through projects such as this, the benefits of cognitive-based approaches to everyday issues such as stress will become more and more mainstream, leading to even greater standards of health and wellbeing in the community.

The brain is at the center of health and well-being, yet our deficit in understanding of the detail of its complexity limits our response to those conditions that cripple so many in our society.

If and when the president announces this project, the question of its cost must be measured not just in dollars but against the lives of those who stand to benefit so much if we seize this moment.

For more by Dr. Gregory Bayer, click here.

For more on brain science, click here.