ARTICLE IN BRIEF
A $100 million proposal to fund the first year of a multidisciplinary, ten-year reseach project to study the electrical activity of individual brain cells and complex neural circuits has excited researchers, but the details about the project are still in development.
President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal includes $100 million to fund the first year of a multidisciplinary, ten-year reseach project to study the electrical activity of individual brain cells and complex neural circuits that might one day yield insights into many neurological disorders.
Drawing parallels to the Human Genome Project and development of the Internet, the President told an April 2 White House briefing that he hopes the project will grow along similar lines, spurring technological advances and creating new jobs while gaining new insights on cognitive processing and neurological diseases.
As outlined, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative will draw on expertise in neurotechnology, neurosciences, and neurology as well as other scientific disciplines not currently focused on the brain.
“We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” President Obama said. “We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet through the research that's done in this BRAIN Initiative alone.”
To goal of the project is to help develop “next-generation” research tools and technologies, combining nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science. However, the president also said BRAIN will also consider the ethical, legal, and societal impact of such research.
The initial $100 million would support research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation. Private companies, universities, and philanthropists are also being encouraged to form partnerships with the federal agencies to further fund research efforts.
The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research is expected to contribute $40 million in FY 2014; DARPA will allocate $50 million toward develping new tools to capture and dynamic neural and synaptic activities; while the National Science Foundation is expected to dedicate about $20 million, including funds to develop molecular probes that can sense and record the activity of neural networks.
No details were given on how the initiative will be structured or which projects will likely be funded. The NIH is establishing a high-level working group to define the program's scientific goals and develop a multi-year plan for achieving these goals, including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates.
POSSIBLE RFAS IN 2014
Many BRAIN projects will build on progress already achieved by researchers across a wide range of disciplines, and will involve all 14 institutes and centers under the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, Story C. Landis, PhD, director of the National Insitute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told Neurology Today in a telephone interview.
“This is not an issue for any specific instutute [at the NIH] but will involve all of them.”
With input from the scientific community, patient advocates, and the general public, the working group will produce an interim report by the end of the summer, including specific recommendations on “high priority” research targets for FY 2014. The final report will be delivered to the NIH Director in June 2014.
“They will give us recommendations and the NIH will turn these into requests for applications [RFAs]. These will probably be quite broad — broad enough so that people can submit their most exciting work,” Dr. Landis said. “We are hoping to get this off the ground as soon as possible and should be able to start requesting applications in 2014.”
The Allen Institute has pledged $60 million per year for the next 10 years, the Kavli Foundation will donate $20 million, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute $30 million, and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences will invest $28 million per year.
“These private foundations are investing in this research using their own investigators,” said Dr. Landis.
Private businesses are also being invited to become involved, especially those involved with neuroimaging, drugs, and medical devices. She also expects some cooperation with other international brain research efforts, notably the European Union's Human Brain Project (HBP), a 10-year, $1.5 billion initiative that will be underwritten by member countries and involve researchers around the globe.
“My understanding is that some of the US researchers involved in the HBP will be involved in our BRAIN initiative as well. The HBP is focused on different areas. Our research will be complementary rather than overlapping, but I expect there will be cooperation.”
Allen Institute Chief Scientific Officer Christof Koch, PhD, said the initiative will help develop next-generation technologies for studying brain activity so that projects at the Allen Institute and elsewhere that seek to record and manipulate the electrical actvivity of brain cells can proceed at an accelerated pace.
“The Allen Institute's major research initiatives and the proposed BRAIN initiative are complementary to one another. This is a fantastic opportunity — the more programs and resources that are available to study the brain, the most complex organ in the known universe, the better,” he told Neurology Today in a telephone interview.
Dr. Koch said he has been surprised by how well the announcement was received by the general public across the political spectrum.
In March 2012, the Allen Institute for Brain Science launched a ten-year project to understand the neural code, with a $300 million pledge for the first four years provided by philanthropist Paul G. Allen. The institute is also a partner of the European Union's Human Brain Project (HBP), with proposed funding of 1.2 billion Euros.
“I think the BRAIN initiative shows commitment, in particular in these times of budget sequestration. Hopefully the $100 million is a down payment and we will see more in the coming years. Most of the funding will likely go to research in basic neuroscience with some exceptions, such as brain-machine interfacing and deep brain stimulation, that can quickly be translated into clinical benefits for patients. There are concerns among brain scientists about big science crowding out little science, but we understand that in order for a field to be viable, smaller studies in projects like this need to be supplemented by larger ones.”
However, he also expressed concern that funding for research in modeling and theory might get overlooked if and when BRAIN funds become available.
“We can now record up to 1,000 nerve cells simultaneously, and hopefully we can push this to 5,000 cells,” Dr. Koch said. “We just need the money for technology development. But even if we could record all of the 100 billion cells in the brain we would still have to know what it means: what language are they using? And this requires theoretical insights coming from mathematics, physics and computer science.”
Neurology Professor Arthur Toga, PhD, who directs the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, has spent decades creating maps and atlases of the brain from the cellular to the systems level.
“I think that such a challenge can be quite motivating in terms of collectively encouraging researchers, but the devil is always in the details,” he told Neurology Today. “They have to decide which projects to fund, and to do this they need to know where interrelationships exist between scientists who are already working on this. There is already this huge foundation of research out there, and we cannot afford to reinvent the wheel.”
Most investigators focus at one end of the spatial continuum or another, either by measuring and charting at the molecular or cellular level or surveying the entire brain at the scale of millimeters, he noted. Mapping individual cells and neural circuitry in real time is a long way off, let alone any possible treatments that might result from better understanding them.
“We cannot easily look at individual cells in living humans yet, and we cannot survey the entire brain in high resolution. If the goal is to be as comprehensive as possible, and involve so many different research disciplines, BRAIN needs to somehow meet in the middle,” he said.
“Certainly, we need to be inclusive and invite new people to the party — those studying nanotechnology and physics, for example. But we cannot ignore the wealth of expertise and knowledge that has led us to this point. We need to include those scientists that have a long history working on this type of research,” he said.
“To my mind, the funding level the BRAIN proposal is a bit disappointing. In the US, we have had the leadership position in science for decades. Maybe we still do, but to keep it we have to increase research funding. Otherwise, we're giving away the store.”
His concerns may not be unfounded. Dr. Landis said that after learning about the US and EU initiatives, China has expressed interest in starting its own research program.