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Obama's BRAIN project gathers dust in government shutdown

Because of the way funding is allocated, the government shutdown could cause lasting consequences for the BRAIN mapping initiative.

Message posted on the White House's Web site's home page during the government shutdown. Screenshot by Dara Kerr/CNET

Not only have federal parks, courts, NASA, and US Web sites gone dark during the current government shutdown, but the government's high-tech BRAIN mapping project also has been halted.

Led by a handful of federal agencies -- like the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation -- most people working on the initiative are on a forced furlough, leaving the project to gather dust in the interim.

If the shutdown lasts for more than a few days, it could stall the project far into the future, according to Popular Science. This is because of how the funding is allocated. If the National Institutes of Health isn't able to start giving scientists their grants immediately, the scheduled 2014 launch and future goals of the initiative could be delayed, causing unforeseen consequences.

"The government shutdown will very definitely affect BRAIN -- will bring it to a complete halt in fact," Stanford University professor Bill Newsome, who is a co-chair on the initiative, told Popular Science. "If this stoppage is protracted, the start of the BRAIN project in 2014 will definitely be at risk."

Newsome said that if the shutdown ends this week, the project will be able to get back on track. "I think if people were called back to work on Friday, this whole thing becomes an incredible nuisance, but it's not a showstopper," he said.

President Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) in April as "the next great American project." The government pledged to invest $100 million in the initiative, which it said would have both economic and scientific benefits.

The goal of BRAIN is to speed up the development of technologies that help researchers conduct brain imaging, which then could give insight into how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact. Ideally, the research could lead to new ways for treating brain disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, or traumatic brain injury. It could also lead to millions of Americans with "jobs we haven't even dreamt up yet," Obama said in his April announcement.

"As humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom," Obama said in April, "but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter sitting between our ears."

It appears that if government infighting continues as is, however, those 3 pounds could stay a mystery quite awhile longer.