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Obama BRAIN initiative may uncover ways to prevent diseases and trauma, researchers hope

The Obama administration is set to tackle one of its toughest challenges yet: unraveling the mysteries of the brain.


The president on Tuesday announced  a $100 million initiative called BRAIN, which he referred to as "the next great American project."

The initiative stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. It aims to accelerate the development and use of new technologies that will allow scientists to get a real-time, dynamic look at how the brain works and how nerve cells function, in the hopes of understanding more about how the brain processes information, stores memories and impacts behavior.

"As humans 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 three pounds of matter sitting between our ears," Mr. Obama said.

Beginning in 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support $100 million in research dollars, and team up with research institutions including the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies which will also fund studies.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told reporters Tuesday that some may call this project "audacious," but tackling the intricacies of the brain is "an enormously important issue," because problems with the brain affect 100 million Americans and cost billions of dollars in health care costs. Such conditions include autism, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injuries.

Collins said that even just a few years ago, such an initiative would not likely have been possible, but technological advancements suggest the time may now be right.

He worked on the Human Genome Project, another major scientific discovery initiative which kicked off in 1990 and completed in 2003.

Fifteen key expert thought leaders will also be involved in the BRAIN initiative, led by Dr. Cori Bargmann, a neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University in New York City and Dr. William Newsome, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California.

Collins said some of the researchers involved are more skeptical about what can be done for brain science, while others are "wildly" enthusiastic.

DARPA's participation was inspired in part by the Wounded Warrior Project, Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA, told reporters Tuesday. She said the initiative may help better understanding of brain injuries caused in battle or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following deployment. The research may also lead to more sophisticated prosthetic devices for wounded service members.

Several patient organizations, medical societies and experts lauded the initiative.

"Investments in brain research such as this project are essential for understanding and developing better treatments for autism," Liz Feld, president of the nonprofit research organization Autism Speaks, said in a statement.

"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 association who is also a member of the National Alzheimer's Plan Advisory Committee, said in a news release.

"We welcome the President's ambitious initiative and the critical backing it provides to the neuroscience community," Dr. Timothy A. Pedley, president of the American Academy of Neurology, said in a statement. "We look forward to learning more about this project, and we are committed to assisting the administration in any way we can."

Dr. Javier Provencio, an intensive care doctor in the neurological intensive care unit at the Cerebrovascular Center of the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute, told a better understanding of the brain could help his work with patients who rupture a brain aneurysm. Ten years ago, many of these patients would not have survived, he said. Now, doctors are better equipped to keep these patients alive, but they may face more subtle issues like memory problems and personality changes, which doctors are struggling to help with.

"It's like trying to fix a bike when you don't how a bike works," he said.

He noted that some patients who suffer strokes or aneurysm ruptures are left with debilitating brain injuries that prevent them from working or living a normal life.

He was excited by the president's announcement for his patients and the field. He thinks there's so much more doctors and researchers can learn in addition to the vast improvements in neuroscience that have been accomplished over the last decade, such as the increased use of specialized MRI machines to better understand brain mechanisms.

"A concerted effort to really investigate [the brain] sounds like a great idea," said Provencio.

Other experts expressed doubts about the scope of the project.


"The underlying assumptions about 'mapping the entire brain' are very controversial," Dr. Donald Stein, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told The New York Times. He said brain chemistry changes were "not likely to be able to be imaged by the current technologies that these people are proposing."

He said rather than emphasizing technological development first, scientists should focus more on concepts of what needs to be measured in the brain.

Besides medical advancement, government officials also hope the campaign can bring economic benefits by creating new jobs and industries including the nanotechnology and computer sectors.

During his 2013 State of the Union, Mr. Obama noted the economic boon caused by the Human Genome Project.

"Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy," he said during his January address.

Mr. Obama said Tuesday the research could lead to "jobs we haven't even dreamt up yet." He pointed to technological advancements like GPS and the Internet, which started out as research projects boosted by government investments.

The White House has more information on the BRAIN initiative.

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