Obama unveils $100M BRAIN Initiative

Expected to 'crack the code' on elusive diseases
By Bernie Monegain
03:09 PM
BRAIN Initiative

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.”

In part, the project would speed innovation and the invention of new technologies to help researchers produce real-time pictures of complex neural circuits and visualize the rapid-fire interactions of cells that occur at the speed of thought.

[See also: NIH, DoD to develop traumatic brain injury database.]

Obama referred to the BRAIN initiative as one of his administration’s "Grand Challenges." Ambitious, perhaps, but achievable, he said, with the advances in science and technology – the type of project that has the potential to improve lives and also create new industries and new jobs.

Another thing about which the President and Collins were agreement is that the work would not be easy. If it were, Obama said, "We would already know everything there was about how the brain works, and presumably my life would be simpler here."

"So it won’t be easy," Obama said. "But think about what we could do once we do crack this code. Imagine if no family had to feel helpless watching a loved one disappear behind the mask of Parkinson’s or struggle in the grip of epilepsy.  Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home."