December 2, 2013

The BRAIN Initiative: an Update

This past April – to great fanfare – President Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The White House website heralded the project this way:
Today at the White House, President 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.
Needless to say, the news set the neuroscience community abuzz. For its reach and boldness, the project was described as “a moonshot for brain research.” As a person with Parkinson’s – a disease of the brain – I got pretty excited, too.

In the months since the announcement, questions have understandably arisen. Was the BRAIN Initiative too general? Was it adequately funded? Were research dollars safe? With various projects spread among different agencies and organizations, would results become fragmented and compromised?

Concerns apparently reached critical mass, and at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting November 9-13 in San Diego, reps from NIH showed up to address concerns and add some new details. While details are outlined in the Interim-Report - Executive-Summary, these are the nine priorities they’ll focus on before issuing the final plan of action in June, 2014:
  1. Generate a Census of Cell Types.
  2. Create Structural Maps of the Brain.
  3. Develop New Large-Scale Network Recording Capabilities.
  4. Develop A Suite of Tools for Circuit Manipulation.
  5. Link Neuronal Activity to Behavior.
  6. Integrate Theory, Modeling, Statistics, and Computation with Experimentation.
  7. Delineate Mechanisms Underlying Human Imaging Technologies.
  8. Create Mechanisms to Enable Collection of Human Data.
  9. Disseminate Knowledge and Training.
While those bullet points seem “general” to a non-scientist, a few specifics did emerge from the meeting.

PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury in Veterans
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has committed $50M to the BRAIN Initiative to help injured soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. DARPA Deputy Director Geoffrey Ling explained that their work will aim to restore soldiers’ memories, damaged or destroyed by injuries to the brain. 

They’ll develop an implanted device that will assume some function of the brain’s hippocampus, an area key to memory. The agency has already had success restoring memory in rodents, and hopes to replicate those successes for veterans.

Progress for People with Parkinson’s?
NIH plans to commit $40M in the BRAIN project to expand understanding of how brain circuits function. Dr. Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said "We believe that the tools and technologies that will come from this initiative will actually enable all brain scientists to do their work better, faster and with more impact."

Landis explained that those improvements will hopefully lead to better treatments for people with brain diseases, like Parkinson’s – and cited deep brain stimulation (DBS) as an example. “While it works, it's incredibly crude," she said. "Imagine if we knew exactly how that circuitry worked. You could design a much better way to do deep brain stimulation."

In its "Science" section on October 24, The New York Times ran an article about the DBS project titled "Agency Initiative Will Focus on Advancing Deep Brain Stimulation.”

How Does the Brain Really Work?
Much of the planned research seems designed to improve our understanding of brain function generally. If we move neuroscience forward in important ways, we’ll greatly enhance our ability to treat specific symptoms and even cure diseases of the brain. 

Examples: Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute plans to map the entire nervous system of the fruit fly. The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle is examining exactly how mouse brain processes visual information. 

Yes, the leap from fruit flies and rodents to humans is vast, but scientists believe these studies hold great promise.

As Always, Budget Worries
NIH Director Francis Collins explained that the final, more detailed plan of action will appear in June, 2014, and that this recent “interim report” was intended “to inspire innovative scientists to come and join us,” and to give researchers time to prepare their grant proposals.

But NIH’s budget for 2014 remains uncertain, since Congress hasn’t yet approved spending plans for any agencies. Pending budget “showdowns” could force NIH to operate at – or even below – last year’s funding.

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