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White House BRAIN Initiative Calls for $100 Million for Scientific Advancement

President Barack Obama is introduced by Dr. Francis Collins, Director,
National Institutes of Health, at the BRAIN Initiative event at the White House,
April 2, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

President Obama has drawn a line in the sand for brain research.

As part of the budget that he will submit to Congress, he is proposing $100 million for the new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Expanded research through advanced technology into how brain cells and “neural circuits” function could lead to more effective treatment s for Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia or other disorders.

The President’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12 signaled the need for scientific and medical advancement and sharpening the country’s technological edge for global economic competition. The BRAIN Initiative is part of that agenda.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, the president said in announcing the initiative from the White House on April 2. “But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

“Scientists possess the capability to study individual neurons and figure out the main functions of certain areas of the brain. But a human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections.”

“We don’t know what life will be like 20 years from now, or 50 years, or 100 years down the road. What we do know is if we keep investing in the most prominent, promising solutions to our toughest problems, then things will get better.”

The initiative will support research led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Private companies, universities and philanthropists will be able to partner with the federal agencies in conducting research in making investments.

The initiative’s vision is similar to that championed by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) who co-founded One Mind for Research in 2011, calling for common cause to address all brain diseases.

“What has hobbled our science and political advocacy is a fragmented approach,” Kennedy observed at the time. “Political science needs to be connected to neuroscience because united we are stronger than divided.”

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has estimated that approximately 50 disease-specific advocacy groups traditionally lobby for its share of research funds alone; however, no “bright line” exists to divide brain disorders. Basic research in one area may lead unexpectedly to rapid clinical advances in another. Discovery does not necessarily flow in one direction or even two.

One Mind proposed that the federal government invest $1 billion in a 10-year research plan. Deliberately or not, the president’s proposal represents exactly one year’s down payment—10 percent—on that vision.

In the current era of fierce budget battles, no federal spending is guaranteed, but in addition to the desire to maintain the country’s technological edge for economic competition, several factors favor the BRAIN Initiative: 

  • Approximately 100 million Americans already struggle with neurological conditions. Each year, an estimated $1 trillion is lost in productivity.
  • The “baby boom” generation of the 1960s is aging, with increased rates of Alzheimer's disease, dementia and major depression expected to help fuel greater health care costs in the United States.
  • Many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face long struggles with brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The country may in fact be reaching a tipping point. The BRAIN Initiative may be an idea whose time has come. Whether it does now depends on Congress.

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