A major federally funded project designed to unlock the mysteries of the brain is under way and, after a year of planning, the initiative’s focus has begun to sharpen. A Viewpoint appearing today online in JAMA Neurology explains the intent of the project, the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which one day may give scientists and physicians insights to treat or prevent disease or illness stemming from brain malfunction.
The BRAIN Initiative, launched April 2, 2013, is a partnership with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, private foundations, and researchers. For fiscal year 2014, President Obama called for a total of $110 million to support the BRAIN Initiative. The NIH will receive $40 million and focus on several areas of research, such as generating a census of brain cell types, creating structural maps of the brain, and linking neuronal activity to behavior.
Coauthor of the Viewpoint, Cornelia I. Bargmann, PhD, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Rockefeller University, New York City, talked with news@JAMA about the BRIAN Initiative.
news@JAMA: Why study the brain?
Dr Bargmann: The goal of the initiative is to understand how the brain functions as an organized unit, to develop a foundation of knowledge that will ultimately allow us to understand which circuits go wrong for different disorders, or how different kinds of defects spread from one initial insult to the brain. We want to really understand the brain as a whole and not just individual pieces.
news@JAMA: Why is this important?
Dr Bargmann: Some kinds of dysfunction of the brain, such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer disease, traumatic brain injury, or post-traumatic stress disorder, will affect 1 in 3 American at some point of their lives. Although they have different causes, they are fundamentally associated with defects in brain function.
news@JAMA: When can we expect results that directly improve an individual’s health?
Dr Bargmann: It’s important to not raise false hopes and make empty promises. The BRAIN Initiative is intended to stimulate technology development and put tools in the hands of scientists and physician scientists to make discoveries that can lead to the treatment or prevention of diseases such as Alzheimer disease.
It’s the first step in building the foundational knowledge. Look at cancer treatment in the past few decades. We can see where science in the 1980s led to new therapies only approved in the late 1990s, such as Gleevec, and only now is it leading to a large armamentarium of anticancer treatments.
news@JAMA: What do you say to those who, when the BRAIN Initiative was announced, were saying the project lacked focus with no defined goals.
Dr Bargmann: When the Brain Initiative was first announced, it was pretty vague. But the NIH developed a year-long planning process to make the Brain Initiative more concrete. It’s trying to look at all the areas that contribute to our understanding of the working of the brain. The planning process hopefully identified what’s achievable, what’s ambitious, and what’s fantastical.
news@JAMA: Reading your Viewpoint, it seems you fully support the BRAIN Initiative.
Dr Bargmann: Everyone should be excited about the BRAIN Initiative. I’m a neuroscientist, and I think knowing how the brain works is the coolest thing we can know.