United States Report


Bold initiative to revolutionise study of the brain

On April 2 at the White House, US President Barack Obama unveiled the “BRAIN” Initiative – a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. Middle East Health reports.

The BRAIN Initiative – short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – builds on the President’s State of the Union call for historic investments in research and development to fuel innovation, job creation, and economic growth.

“We have the chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet,” said the President, “It will require us to embrace the spirit of discovery that made America – America.” Obama compared the BRAIN Initiative to the Human Genome Project, which mapped the entire human genome and ushered in a new era of genetics-based medicine. “Every dollar spent on the human genome has returned $140.00 to our economy,” the president said. Instead of charting genes, BRAIN will help visualize the brain activity directly involved in such vital functions as seeing, hearing and storing memories, a crucial step in understanding how to treat diseases and injuries of the nervous system.


Launched with approximately $100 million the BRAIN Initiative promises to accelerate the invention of new technologies that will help researchers produce realtime pictures of complex neural circuits and visualize the rapid-fire interactions of cells that occur at the speed of thought. Such cutting-edge capabilities, applied to both simple and complex systems, will open new doors to understanding how brain function is linked to human behaviour and learning, and the mechanisms of brain disease.

This initiative is one of the Administration’s “Grand Challenges” – ambitious but achievable goals that require advances in science and technology. In his remarks, the President called on companies, research universities, foundations, and philanthropists to join him in identifying and pursuing the Grand Challenges of the 21st century.

In the last decade alone, scientists have made a number of landmark discoveries that now create the opportunity to unlock the mysteries of the brain, including the sequencing of the human genome, the development of new tools for mapping neuronal connections, the increasing resolution of imaging technologies, and the explosion of nanoscience. These breakthroughs have paved the way for unprecedented collaboration and discovery across scientific fields. For instance, by combining advanced genetic and optical techniques, scientists can now use pulses of light to determine how specific cell activities in the brain affect behaviour. In addition, through the integration of neuroscience and physics, researchers can now use high-resolution imaging technologies to observe how the brain is structurally and functionally connected in living humans.

While these technological innovations have contributed substantially to our expanding knowledge of the brain, significant breakthroughs in how we treat neurological and psychiatric disease will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds. This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science and engineering.


To make the most of these opportunities, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation are launching this effort with funding in the President’s FY 2014 budget.

National Institutes of Health: The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research – an initiative that pools resources and expertise from across 15 NIH Institutes and Centers – will be a leading NIH contributor to the implementation of this initiative in FY 2014. The Blueprint program will contribute funding for the initiative, given that the Blueprint funds are specifically devoted to projects that support the development of new tools, training opportunities, and other resources. In total, NIH intends to allocate approximately $40 million in FY 2014.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): In Fiscal Year 2014, DARPA plans to invest $50 million in a set of programs with the goal of understanding the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrating breakthrough applications based on these insights. DARPA aims to develop a new set of tools to capture and process dynamic neural and synaptic activities. DARPA is interested in applications – such as a new generation of information processing systems and restoration mechanisms – that dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury, and memory loss. DARPA will engage a broad range of experts to explore the ethical, legal, and societal issues raised by advances in neurotechnology.

National Science Foundation: The National Science Foundation will play an important role in the BRAIN Initiative because of its ability to support research that spans biology, the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social and behavioural sciences. The National Science Foundation intends to support approximately $20 million in FY 2014 in research that will advance this initiative, such as the development of molecular- scale probes that can sense and record the activity of neural networks; advances in “Big Data” that are necessary to analyse the huge amounts of information that will be generated, and increased understanding of how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain.

Private sector partners

The initiative will include partnerships with a number of companies, foundations, and private research institutions already investing in neuroscience research. For instance, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which began studying the neural code in 2012 as part of an expansion supported by a $300 million pledge from institute founder Paul G. Allen, will invest more than $60 million annually in BRAIN Initiative-related projects. Elsewhere, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has committed at least $30 million to related research, while the Salk Institute for Biological Studies will dedicate more than $28 million to cross-disciplinary research through its Dynamic Brain Initiative, and the Kavli Foundation expects to invest $4 million annually over ten years in related research and activities.

Key private sector partners have made important commitments to support the BRAIN Initiative, including:

- The Allen Institute for Brain Science: The Allen Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization, is a leader in large-scale brain research and public sharing of data and tools. In March 2012, the Allen Institute for Brain Science embarked upon a ten-year project to understand the neural code: how brain activity leads to perception, decision making, and ultimately action. The Allen Institute’s expansion, with a $300M investment from philanthropist Paul G. Allen in the first four years, was based on the recent unprecedented advances in technologies for recording the brain’s activity and mapping its interconnections. More than $60M annually will be spent to support Allen Institute projects related to the BRAIN Initiative.

- Howard Hughes Medical Institute: HHMI is the Nation’s largest nongovernmental funder of basic biomedical research and has a long history of supporting basic neuroscience research. HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia was opened in 2006 with the goal of developing new imaging technologies and understanding how information is stored and processed in neural networks. It will spend at least $30 million annually to support projects related to this initiative.

- Kavli Foundation: The Kavli Foundation anticipates supporting activities that are related to this project with approximately $4 million dollars per year over the next ten years. This figure includes a portion of the expected annual income from the endowments of existing Kavli Institutes and endowment gifts to establish new Kavli Institutes over the coming decade. This figure also includes the Foundation’s continuing commitment to supporting project meetings and selected other activities.

- Salk Institute for Biological Studies: The Salk Institute, under its Dynamic Brain Initiative, will dedicate over $28 million to work across traditional boundaries of neuroscience, producing a sophisticated understanding of the brain, from individual genes to neuronal circuits to behavior. To truly understand how the brain operates in both healthy and diseased states, scientists will map out the brain’s neural networks and unravel how they interrelate. To stave off or reverse diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, scientists will explore the changes that occur in the brain as we age, laying the groundwork for prevention and treatment of age-related neurological diseases.

These private sector partners are home to many pioneering scientists, for example, the Salk Institute is home to several pioneering tool builders, such as Edward M. Callaway, already famous among systems neuroscientists for using a modified rabies virus to trace neuronal connections in the visual system.

“Scientists have known since the time of Galileo that new tools can open up whole new lines of research,” says Callaway, holder of the Audrey Geisel Chair in Biomedical Science. “But for us, tools aren’t just mechanical instruments, they can be viruses, genes, chemical dyes, or even photons.”

The BRAIN Initiative builds on discussions among a group of leading neuroscientists and nanotechnologists that were initiated at a 2011 conference organized by the Allen Institute and the Kavli and Gatsby Charitable foundations. The initiative’s focus on leveraging emerging technologies dovetails with advances in computational neuroscience, engineering and physics that are enabling scientists to develop tiny tools to better explore the brain.

“We want to understand the brain to know how we reason, how we memorize, how we learn, how we move, how our emotions work. These abilities define us, yet we hardly understand any of it,” said Miyoung Chun, vice president of science programs at the Kavli Foundation. “An interdisciplinary network of scientists and engineers working together could make new, powerful prosthetics, lead to new treatments of devastating brain disorders, create improved educational strategies, and smart technologies that mimic the brain’s extraordinary abilities.”

Salk neuroscientist Terrence J. Sejnowski summed up his excitement over the promise of BRAIN: “Imagine how it must have felt to be a rocket engineer when Kennedy said we would reach for the moon. You know there’s an almost unimaginable amount of hard work ahead of you – and yet you can’t wait to get started.”

 Date of upload: 20th May 2013


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