President Obama announces BRAIN Initiative

President Barack Obama unveiled the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative on Tuesday. Described in a White House press release as one of the administration’s “Grand Challenges,” the goal of the initiative is to bring private and public sector research together to accelerate the development and application of technology and research into the function of complex neural networks. President Obama laid the ground work for today’s announcement during his State of the Union address in January, calling for an increased investment in research to achieve “a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.”

The proposed BRAIN Initiative would receive $100 million from the federal government in FY14, as outlined in the president’s forthcoming budget proposal, which is expected to be released next week. This funding will be funneled through the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation FY14 budgets. Private research organizations, including Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have pledged a combined $132 million to support BRAIN Initiative research projects as well.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mysteries of the three pounds of ‘matter’ that sits between our ears,” Obama said during a press conference. “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.”

These are the kinds of outcomes that are only possible through increased investment in research.

The funding would support the integration of multiple scientific disciplines including engineering, neurology and nanoscience to make sense of how the brain works, according to this brief video featuring NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD. During a live Q&A Twitter and Google+ chat, advocates, researchers and many others submitted questions for Collins; Tom Kalil, deputy director of technology and innovation at the Office of Science and Technology; and Arati Prabhakar, PhD, DARPA director. Questions reflected concerns of such a large investment in one targeted initiative at a time when biomedical research funding has already suffered major cuts, but Collins was clear in his reply that the funding investment represents only a small portion of the NIH budget and that this project would not affect other NIH funding. Additional questions touched on the involvement of private companies and research organizations (which Collins and Prabhakar both strongly support), a need for ethical and administrative oversight, and the importance of making BRAIN Initiative findings publically available on a more rapid timetable.

This proposal has been met with great support from many in the research community.

“The Alzheimer’s Association applauds the president for underscoring the critical need for research to better understand the mysteries of the brain,” Harry Johns, president and CEO of the group and a Research!America Board member, said in a statement.

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