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Vol. LXV, No. 9
April 26, 2013

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President, Collins Announce BRAIN Initiative

On the front page...

President Barack Obama (r) is introduced by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at the BRAIN Initiative event at the White House on Apr. 2.

President Barack Obama (r) is introduced by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at the BRAIN Initiative event at the White House on Apr. 2.

Photo: Chuck Kennedy

On Apr. 2, in the East Room of the White House, President Obama announced the administration’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. The President was introduced by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who in the days following the announcement embarked on a media outreach tour to sketch out the particulars of a plan he called roughly reminiscent of the Human Genome Project, circa 1988.

NIH would lead an effort, slated to begin in FY 2014, budgeted in its first year at $100 million. In concert with research teams from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, NIH would spearhead an initiative to 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.


“There’s 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 will be transformative,” Obama said.

In an interview with BBC America, Collins said, “I think it is the most exciting life science initiative in a long time, an effort to try to understand the most complex [structure] that we know of in the universe, namely the human brain. And to apply that in a way that will lead to insights about how to prevent and treat a long list of diseases from Alzheimer’s to autism to epilepsy to traumatic brain injury to schizophrenia…it’s going to change our understanding of the brain.

“We really don’t understand the fundamental ways in which circuits in the brain create all of the amazing phenomena that our brains are capable of,” he continued. “We need to have a dream team of super scientific experts [who can] lay out some of the milestones and deliverables so that we can say more explicitly what the goals of this project are going to be—that’s coming fairly soon.”

NIH has established a working group co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann of the Rockefeller University and Dr. William Newsome of Stanford University. It will define scientific goals for NIH’s investment and develop a multi-year scientific plan. The working group, which reports to the advisory committee to the NIH director, has announced an ambitious plan to hold meetings every 3 weeks.

In interviews with reporters, Collins noted that deep brain stimulation, as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease, can be effective, but no one knows exactly why.

Obama said, “We can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the 3 pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

In an interview with CNN, Collins noted that “there are 100 million Americans who suffer from diseases that affect the brain. It’s costing us $500 billion each year to give health care to those individuals. If we’re ever really going to make progress, we have to build this foundation of understanding how the brain works.”

In an online video interview with the Washington Post, Collins said that the BRAIN Initiative is “rather similar to 1988, when the genome project was being talked about but nobody was quite sure whether the technology was up to the task, and whether the scientific community was ready to roll up their sleeves and do big science this way. Ultimately, as you know, that succeeded.”

He continued, “The technology has arrived at the point where we think we could do something pretty bold to figure out how the circuits in the brain actually function.”

Outlining first steps in the initiative, Collins said, “I think we will focus initially, because we have to, on tool development and on trying to understand some basic principles of how [brain] circuits work.” He predicted the task will be tougher than the Human Genome Project.

“I would say the brain is more difficult,” he explained. The HGP involved reading out the 3 billion letters in human DNA, he said. By contrast, “The brain is a very 3-dimensional [organ]. In fact, it’s 4 dimensions, because time really matters. So the complexity of what you’re trying to do is potentially much more

Collins concluded, “For us at NIH, we’re hopeful that we can launch this in FY 2014 with a
big push.”

The BRAIN Initiative will also include public-private partnerships with such organizations as the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In addition, 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.

According to the President’s FY 2014 budget, NIH’s Blueprint for Neuroscience Research—an initiative that pools resources and expertise from across 15 institutes and centers—will be a leading NIH contributor to the implementation of the BRAIN Initiative. In total, NIH intends to allocate approximately $40 million in FY 2014.

In the days following the President’s announcement, Collins was highly sought by various media, including an appearance on The Colbert Report on Apr. 4, winning the accolade “Person of the Week” by ABC News on Apr. 5 (which dubbed him “Brainiac in Chief”), giving interviews to CNN, the Washington Post, NPR’s Science Friday and the Diane Rehm Show (see, BBC World News and C-SPAN’s Washington Journal.

Collins also coauthored an op-ed article in the Apr. 9 Wall Street Journal with Paul Allen, whose Seattle-based institute is deeply interested in brain research. Their description of the brain—“in essence, a piece of highly excitable matter”—matches a burgeoning effort to try to understand its workings.

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