The BRAIN Initiative

On April 2, 2013, President Obama announced his plan to launch the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. What exactly is this initiative and what does it mean for basic research funding?

What is the BRAIN Initiative?

The BRAIN Initiative is a funding scheme with the goal of developing techniques and tools that will improve our knowledge of the brain and its structural and functional connections. It is also a partnership between government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as well as private entities like the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. President Obama likened this initiative to large scale government investments in the Human Genome Project and the space race, stating that he hopes this initiative will likewise be a multi-year, collaborative project that produces transformative knowledge and technologies.

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What do we hope to learn from the BRAIN Initiative?

Although each entity contributing to the BRAIN Initiative has slightly different goals (see the links above for details), overall the purpose of the BRAIN initiative is to develop methods that will allow us to map the brain in much greater detail than we are currently able to do. The hope is that this will lead to better treatments for brain diseases and a much deeper understanding of how the brain works.

As NIH’s BRAIN Initiative website states:

“By accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies, researchers will be able to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. Long desired by researchers seeking new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, this picture will fill major gaps in our current knowledge and provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”

All of the BRAIN Initiative funders hope to develop tools to characterize individual neurons and measure real-time neuronal activity in complex, living brains (of various species). They also wish to develop computational methods for collecting and analyzing the massive amounts of data expected. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and DARPA will also study the ethical implications of learning so much about the brain, such as whether the technology produced can be used for harmful purposes.

How will the BRAIN Initiative be funded?

Because the BRAIN Initiative is a partnership between many institutions, some of the funding will come from government sources and some will come from private sources.

For fiscal year 2014, President Obama requested a $110 million boost to the federal budget for the BRAIN Initiative. The plan is for NIH to set aside $40 million for the initiative, for NSF to contribute $20 million, and for DARPA to supply $50 million. In President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, he is asking for NIH to contribute $100 million, for NSF to contribute $20 million, and for DARPA to contribute $80 million to the initiative after each agency receives an overall budget boost. The goal is for federal funding to continue like this for an undefined number of years. Private funding will include $60 million per year from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, $30 million per year from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, $4 million per year for 10 years from the Kavli Foundation, and $28 million overall from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Now, how will this money be spent?

NIH has been issuing funding opportunity announcements specifically for the BRAIN Initiative so that researchers can get grant money to do the work, and NIH has a working group dedicated to figuring out priority research areas. NSF likewise has a variety of funding mechanisms in place for researchers to get grant funding for BRAIN Initiative-related work. DARPA plans to use the money to support current neuroscience-related programs and to develop new programs to support research related to the BRAIN Initiative. The private institutes participating in the BRAIN Initiative will be supporting their own research and training mechanisms related to neuroscience and technological innovation.

As President Obama mentioned in his speech, he hopes that this investment in neuroscience will have a huge economic return. A group of scientists also expressed this sentiment prior to the BRAIN Initiative announcement in an article published in the journal Science. They think that if this initiative is anywhere as successful as the Human Genome Project then every dollar invested will lead to many dollars returned to the U.S. economy.

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What’s the catch?

The BRAIN Initiative is admittedly ambitious, but will it be worth it? The initiative’s announcement has not been without controversy. Some have argued that this is an over-reach of government or that the monetary amount is too small compared to current neuroscience research budgets to have an impact. Others believe that the initiative is not well-organized and may be premature. With the precarious state of current federal funding for science, it is also possible that the money may not materialize or be sustained, which could cause the federal agencies involved to siphon money away from smaller, investigator-driven grants (which keep most academic scientists employed) to fund bigger projects belonging to the initiative. Overall, organizations that stand to benefit from the initiative remain optimistic, believing that it will lead to an overall public good and that the details will be worked out over time. NIH Director Francis Collins and prominent neuroscientists have spoken out in support of the project. The European Union has even announced a similar initiative called the Human Brain Project, which means that clarifying how the brain works is an international priority.

If you are curious about the initiative and its progress, the NIH has created a website to keep the public informed. There is also a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Conclusions

The U.S. neuroscience research community has received much attention in the wake of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative launch. It remains to be seen just how much the field will change in response to this effort, but we could see a leap in our understanding of one of the most complex and intriguing human organs. I am both cautious about overstating the returns we may receive (because science never guarantees results) and excited at the opportunity to see such advances in my lifetime. I can personally say that this is an interesting time to be a neuroscientist, but let’s hope that everyone will benefit from the effort.

Editor: Chris Hensley

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