Advocacy: BRAIN Initiative Brings Resources and Challenges

Neurology Now
June–July 2013
Volume 9(3)
p 14–15
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In April of this year, President Barack Obama announced his challenge to scientists and innovators through the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative (http://1.usa.gov/10sBMx3 ). “The BRAIN Initiative will [give] scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and learn and remember. That knowledge will be transformative,” President Obama said. The President committed approximately $100 million from National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) out of the 2014 budget to jumpstart the initiative.

The human brain has close to 86 billion neurons, each making on average about 10,000 connections, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (nimh.nih.gov ). Yet, scientists currently know relatively little about how the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information.

Brain Cell Images: Jeff Lichtman M.D., Ph.D., Jeremy R. Knowles Profess or of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Santi ago Ramón y Cajal Profess or of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

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“One of the initial goals of the BRAIN Initiative is to develop tools and technologies that will allow scientists to see how information is processed in the many circuits responsible for sensing, acting, learning, and remembering. NIH has asked an outstanding team of scientists to consult with the broad community to develop goals and timelines for this ambitious project. The first recommendations will be available late in the summer,” says Story Landis, Ph.D, director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS; ninds.nih.gov ), within the NIH. It is possible to track the progress of the BRAIN initiative at nih.gov/science/brain/index.htm .

The research could have an impact on many brain disorders, including autism, Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, and many more. But Dr. Landis expects to see more immediate outcomes in epilepsy. A better understanding of what happens in the brain during a seizure could help to predict and potentially stop a seizure before it occurs, she says.

The BRAIN Initiative may also yield better treatments for Parkinson's disease (PD). “In PD, the dopamine circuits begin to die. When a patient is first diagnosed, medications can be given to replace the dopamine,” Dr. Landis says. “However, over time, the drugs can cease to be as effective.” Deep brain stimulation is often the next course of therapy. “The work that comes out of the BRAIN Initiative could help us understand more about what is going wrong in the brains of people with PD and so create more effective devices to manage the disease.”

In addition to the combined $100 million from the government, foundations and private research institutions are investing in the neuroscience that will advance the BRAIN Initiative. “The Allen Institute for Brain Science, for example, will spend at least $60 million annually to support projects related to this initiative,” Dr. Landis says. (For Neurology Now coverage of the Allen Institute, go to http://bit.ly/11rnf77 .) The Kavli Foundation plans to give approximately $4 million dollars per year over the next 10 years. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies will also dedicate research funding for projects that support the BRAIN Initiative.

“This is just the beginning. We hope many more foundations, federal agencies, philanthropists, non-profits, companies, and others will step up to the President's call to action,” Dr. Landis says. —Andrea King Collier

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