Obama unveils $100M BRAIN Initiative

BRAIN InitiativeFrancis Collins, MD, director, National Institutes of Health, introduces President Barck Obamaat at the BRAIN Initiative event in the East Room of the White House, April 2. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Expected to 'crack the code' on elusive diseases

Dubbing it “the next great American project,” President Barack Obama announced Tuesday the launch of the BRAIN Initiative, aimed at unlocking the many mysteries of the brain.

The $100 million “to get the project off the ground” comes from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, and is part of the budget the president will send to Congress next week.

Obama and the man who will oversee the project, Francis Collins, director of NIH, both noted the work could give humanity answers for avoiding and treating diseases and conditions, such as Alzheimers, schizophrenia, epilepsy, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease and autism.

BRAIN is short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

As Obama sees it, it builds on his State of the Union Address in which he called for investments in research and development to fuel the innovation, job creation, and economic growth needed to create a thriving middle class.

"It is bold; it is audacious," Collins said in an online question-and-answer session Tuesday. He said the $100 million pledge, along with other anticipated funding from foundations ready to partner in the effort, constitutes "a strong start out of the gate."

[See also: NIH leader calls for evidence on mHealth.]

Collins, who directed the NIH’s Human Genome Project, said the BRAIN initiative would work in similar fashion, first by pulling together what he called "a dream team" of neuroscientists, who would frame the work and provide initial feedback this summer. By 2014, they would set milestones for the project. The goals, he said, would be "bold, audacious, but not crazy."

Arati Prabhakar, an engineer and the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops new technologies for the military, said "the interesting questions usually lie in the mid range."

Taking another page from the Human Genome Project, Collins said, the BRAIN project would make the data public and do so quickly once it was tested for quality.

[See also: Researchers have instant access to 1000 Genomes Project.]

"I believe in making data available immediately," he said. "This kind of public access to data applies not just to scientists, but to the general public."

As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom,” Obama said in announcing the initiative. “But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

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