Some have called it America’s next moonshot. Indeed, like the historic effort that culminated with the first moon landing in 1969, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is a bold, ambitious endeavor that will require the energy of thousands of our nation’s most creative minds working together over the long haul.
Our goal? To produce the first dynamic view of the human brain in action, revealing how its roughly 86 billion neurons and its trillions of connections interact in real time. This new view will revolutionize our understanding of how we think, feel, learn, remember, and move, transforming efforts to help the more than 1 billion people worldwide who suffer from autism, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other devastating brain disorders.
When on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced plans to go to the moon by the end of the decade, most Americans (not to mention space scientists!) were stunned because much of the technology needed to achieve a moonshot didn’t yet exist. Likewise, medical research today faces a wide gap between our current technologies for studying the brain and what will be needed to realize BRAIN’s ambitious goals. Right now, we’re pretty good at studying individual brain cells and we also are able to image the whole brain when someone is holding very still inside a neuroimaging machine (such as a PET or MRI scanner). What’s missing are tools to see what’s really going on within the brain’s neural circuitry—the crucial middle level at which most of human cognition and behavior is generated, as well as ways to look at the brain when people are moving around and interacting in the real world.
I’m proud to say the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today took a major step towards bridging this gap when we awarded $46 million to more than 100 researchers in 15 states and three nations. Supported by NIH’s initial investment, researchers will begin to develop innovative tools, technologies, and approaches that will serve as a foundation for the entire, multi-year BRAIN endeavor. Among the 58 projects funded by NIH in Fiscal Year 2014 are efforts to:
- Develop innovative technologies to advance basic neuroscience
- Generate methods for classifying and analyzing the brain’s diverse cells and circuits
- Create and optimize technologies for recording and modulating large groups of cells that act together in circuits; and
- Form interdisciplinary teams to develop new non-invasive tools for human brain imaging.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly what such research might yield, there are some tantalizing possibilities on the horizon. Researchers at West Virginia University in Morgantown plan to work on developing a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) brain imager that can be worn when a person is in motion, during the proverbial “walk in the park,” or while walking on a treadmill. Another project that’s aimed at imaging brain function in real-world environments will take place at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where researchers will strive to advance development of portable Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) technologies.
Some of the other NIH-supported research projects will involve using DNA “barcodes” to trace complex brain circuits, lasers to trigger the firing of specific brain cells, radio waves to stimulate the activity of specific brain circuits, and diamond-coated electrodes to record communication among brain cells.
Announced by President Obama last year, the BRAIN Initiative involves four federal agencies — NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Planning for the NIH component is guided by a long-term scientific plan, entitled BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision, which details seven high-priority research areas and calls for a sustained federal commitment of $4.5 billion over 12 years.
So, just as NASA kept the nation informed about the many successes (and a few notable failures) of the space flights that paved the way for the Apollo 11 moon landing, you can expect to hear a lot more from NIH and its partners in coming years as we gear up for our big goal: capturing a dynamic picture of the human brain—and enabling the use of such knowledge to advance human health.
NIH awards initial $46 million for BRAIN Initiative research, NIH News Release, September 30, 2014
Video: Remarks by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, September 30, 2014
BRAIN Initiative (NIH)