White House Unveils BRAIN Initiative

Obama Announces BRAIN InitiativeLast week, President Obama announced a new research initiative designed to advance our understanding of the human brain.  It is hoped that the new initiative, dubbed the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, will lead to new methods for treating, curing, and preventing brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and traumatic brain injury.  The initiative, one of the Administration's "Grand Challenges," aims to produce a dynamic picture of the brain that will show how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space, thereby providing opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information.

In announcing the new initiative, the Administration noted that despite recent advances in neuroscience, the underlying causes of most neurological and psychiatric conditions remain largely unknown, due to the vast complexity of the human brain.  According to the White House release, significant breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disease will require a new generation of tools that enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds.

The new initiative is still in the planning process, however, with a working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director having been formed to articulate the scientific goals of the BRAIN initiative and develop a multi-year scientific plan for achieving those goals.  The working group will produce an interim report by the fall of this year that will contain specific recommendations on high priority investments for FY 2014, with a final report to be delivered to the NIH Director in June 2014.

Beginning in FY 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide some $100 million in funding to support the initiative.  DARPA's role in the initiative will be to develop a new set of tools to capture and process dynamic neural and synaptic activities, while the NSF will support research spanning biology, the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences, and in particular, will develop molecular-scale probes that can sense and record the activity of neural networks, work on advances in "Big Data" that will be required to analyze the huge amounts of information that will be generated, and aid in the understanding of how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain.  Private foundations, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, The Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have also made commitments to support the new initiative.

In seeking additional support for the BRAIN initiative, the Administration noted that a previous Grand Challenge, the Human Genome Project, demonstrated that ambitious research projects can have a significant impact on the country's economy.  With respect to the Human Genome Project, for example, the Federal Government invested $3.8 billion in that initiative between 1988 and 2003, producing an economic output of $796 billion, or a return of $14 for every $1 invested (see "Report Gauges Economic Impact of Human Genome Project").