Posted on April 2, 2013 · Posted in Brain Injury

At a White House press conference Tuesday, President Obama officially unveiled his $100 million research initiative to understand and map the human brain.

The president had alluded to this study during his State of the Union address, and basically everyone was waiting for him to talk about the details of the program, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.

“It ultimately aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury,” the White House said in a press release.

“The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought,” the release continued.

“These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.

In his remarks, Obama called on companies, research universities, foundations, and philanthropists to join with him in identifying and pursuing the scientific challenges of of the 21st Century.

The president’s comments were quite eloquent.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom,” Obama said. “But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.  (Laughter)  …  So as a result, we’re still unable to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s or autism, or fully reverse the effects of a stroke.  And the most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with.”

He said, “So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.  And that knowledge could be — will be — transformative.”

The president said the task at hand won’t be easy, but worth the concerted effort.

“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,” Obama said.

“Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home. Imagine if someone with a prosthetic limb can now play the piano or throw a baseball as well as anybody else, because the wiring from the brain to that prosthetic is direct and triggered by what’s already happening in the patient’s mind.”

Here are the bullet points about the BRAIN Initiative from the White House press release:

* Key investments to jumpstart the effort: The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation will support about $100 million in research beginning in fiscal 2014.

* Strong academic leadership: The National Institutes of Health will establish a high-level working group co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann (The Rockefeller University) and Dr. William Newsome (Stanford University) to define detailed scientific goals for the NIH’s investment, and to develop a multi-year scientific plan for achieving these goals, including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates.

* Public-private partnerships: Federal research agencies will partner with companies, foundations, and private research institutions that are also investing in relevant neuroscience research, such as the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

* Maintaining our highest ethical standards:  Pioneering research often has the potential to raise new ethical challenges. To ensure this new effort proceeds in ways that continue to adhere to our highest standards of research protections, the president will direct his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore the ethical, legal, and societal implications raised by this research initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience.

The White House pointed out that although there have been many recent discoveries about the brain, “significant breakthroughs in how we treat neurological and psychiatric disease will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds.”

And according to the White House, “This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science and engineering.”

The roles of the NIH, DARPA and the National Science Foundation were also outlined.

The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research — an initiative that pools resources and expertise from across 15 NIH institutes and centers — will be a leading NIH contributor to the implementation of the initiative in 2014.  In total, NIH intends to allocate about $40 million in fiscal 2014.

DARPA plans to invest $50 million in a set of programs to understand the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrate breakthrough applications based on these insights.

It aims to develop a new set of tools to capture and process dynamic neural and synaptic activities. It is interested in applications — such as a new generation of information processing systems and restoration mechanisms — that improve the way we diagnose and treat war fighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury, and memory loss.  DARPA will engage a broad range of experts to explore the ethical, legal, and societal issues raised by advances in neurotechnology.

The National Science Foundation will support research that spans biology, the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences.

It will contribute $20 million in fiscal 2014 in research to advance the initiative, such as the development of molecular-scale probes that can sense and record the activity of neural networks; advances in “Big Data” that are necessary to analyze the huge amounts of information that will be generated, and increased understanding of how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447