President Barak Obama announced on Tuesday that he will ask for $100 million in his fiscal 2014 budget next week to sponsor the first year of the “BRAIN Initiative”, a bold, new 10-year research effort to advance our understanding of the human brain and uncover new ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders like autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

BRAIN stands for Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies. According to Obama, it builds on his call for historic investments in R&D to promote innovations, new jobs and economic growth.

Brain diseases and disorders cost the US healthcare system approximately $500 billion each year, according to Francis Collins, MD, PhD.

Dr. Collins said:

“The human brain is at the present time the most complicated organ in the known universe. The ability to try to understand how the circuits in the brain conduct very complex properties is one of the greatest challenges that science currently has in front of us.”

Obama said that the BRAIN initiative reminds him of the $3 billion Human Genome Project, which Dr. Collins helped direct during the 1990s. The Human Genome Project mapped all the genes in human DNA. Sequencing the human genome started off costing over $100 million dollars, and eventually fell to $7,000 at the end of the project. It was seen as the prelude to personalized medicine. Life Technologies says it can sequence the entire human genome for $1,000.

Obama described the BRAIN Initiative as one of the Administration’s “Grand Challenges” – with ambitious but achievable goals that require serious advances in technology and science to accomplish. He called on research centers, foundations, philanthropic organizations and companies to join him “in identifying and pursuing additional Grand Challenges of the 21st century – challenges that can create the jobs and industries of the future while improving lives.”

President Barack Obama and Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, at the BRAIN Initiative event in the White House, April 2, 2013. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

According to the White House, the BRAIN Initiative will speed up the invention of new technologies that will help scientists produce real-time pictures of intricate neural circuits and visualize rapid-fire interactions of cells that occur as fast as we are able to think. Such leading-edge capabilities, when applied to both simple and complex systems, will help us better understand how brain function, learning and human behavior are linked, as well as the structures and mechanisms of brain disease.

The BRAIN Initiative will involve several federal agencies including DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), NIH (National Institutes of Health), and the NSF (National Science Foundation).

During his State of the Union Address in February, the President mentioned the project briefly. On Tuesday, he gave a more detailed and concrete account.

The project is estimated to cost $100 million during its first year. Obama plans to ask Congress for the money. The Human Genome Project, Collins pointed out, cost $28 million during its first year. Collins described $100 million as “a pretty good start for getting the project off the ground.”

With Congress keeping an eagle-eye on budget issues, it remains to be seen whether $100 million will be approved.

The following parties are expected to make substantial contributions to the Brain Initiative:
  • The NIH’s Blueprint for Neuroscience Research is expected to contribute approximately $40 million – the leading contributor. The initiative spans 14 NIH Institutes and Centers.

  • DARPA – plans to invest about $50 million in 2014, the aim being to understand the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrate new applications based on these insights.

    DARPA Director, Arati Prabhakar, said “The President’s initiative reinforces the significance of understanding how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information. This kind of knowledge of brain function could inspire the design of a new generation of information processing systems; lead to insights into brain injury and recovery mechanisms; and enable new diagnostics, therapies and devices to repair traumatic injury.”

  • NSF – will contribute about $20 million. NSF-supported research in this area spans computer science, physical sciences, mathematics, biology, social sciences, and behavioral sciences. NSF contributions will also include the development of molecular-scale probes that can sense and record neural network activity, advances in “Big Data” that are required to analyze enormous amounts of data that the project will generate, and an enhanced understanding of how emotions, thoughts, actions and memories are represented in the brain.

    NSF Acting Director, Cora Marrett, said “NSF is ideally positioned to support the BRAIN Initiative because of the broad scope of science and engineering research funding we provide to the nation. NSF’s neuroscience and cognitive science research portfolio is expansive, and this initiative enhances efforts that are already underway to explore neurological connections from the cellular to human behavioral levels.”

  • The Allen Institute for Brain Science – last year, it embarked upon a 10-year initiative to understand the neural code; how human brain activity leads to decision making, perception, and action.

    According to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, it has been “undertaking large-scale brain research projects and sharing the resulting data and tools openly and publicly for the purpose of advancing the field. The public resources created by the Allen Institute have become essential tools for many thousands of scientists around the world. This kind of work has opened the door and laid the foundation for projects like the BRAIN Initiative.”

  • Other organizations include the Kavli Foundation, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Dr. Collins says the NIH’s first step will be to assemble a “dream team” of 15 eminent neuroscientists. They will be asked to develop a timetable and recommend achievable goals. The group will be co-chaired by William Newsome, PhD, of Stanford University and Cori Bargmann, PhD, of Rockefeller University. The first round of recommendations are expected to be put forward this summer.

Dr. Collins said it is too early to list what the goals might be. Arati Prabhakar added that getting there will be a very long series of quite interesting milestones and demonstrations of capabilities along the way. She added that studying memory storage and loss will definitely be among the recommendations.

Prabhakar said that untangling the virtually endless neural connections is a more daunting task than decoding the human genome. If we assume that a neuron has 10,000 connections, the human brain probably has about one thousand trillion connections (1 x 1015), Jeffrey R. Petrella, MD and P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, explained in the journal Neurology.

Dr. Petrella, MD, and Dr. Doraiswamy wrote:

“It is easy to forget that no noninvasive imaging technique today maps the functions of neurons reliably at an individual level. In fact, we do not even fully understand the many ways that neurons might communicate with each other and how this may change over time.”

Obama received praise from an unlikely politician, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga), who said “President Obama deserves credit for taking an important step in the right direction”.

What is the BRAIN Initiative?

Written by Christian Nordqvist