The NIH BRAIN Initiative
On April 2, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. He described the initiative eloquently: “…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.” While the focus of his speech was the unveiling of the BRAIN Initiative, Obama used it to emphasize the value of investments in science, remarking on the importance of innovation and stating that scientific advances could provide unanticipated benefits and change our lives.
NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and NSF will lead the federal portion of the BRAIN Initiative. The intent is to launch the initiative in FY2014 with a commitment of federal funding of just over $100M. In addition, several private partners, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, are also committed to ensuring its success.
Recognizing that there would be many questions about the NIH portion of the BRAIN Initiative, we wrote a short summary of the rationale for the initiative, which can be viewed on the Science website. The summary pointed out that mapping brain structure and function is already a vibrant, exciting field of science. From Brainbow and CLARITY to the Human Connectome Project, we are seeing unprecedented images of neural architecture. Breakthrough technologies, such as two photon imaging, light-sheet microscopy, and miniaturized microendoscopes, together with calcium imaging and voltage imaging, have given us the first dynamic views of how the brain encodes information in modular circuits. Optogenetics has enabled precise manipulation of circuit activity with light pulses. These are just a few of the recent breakthroughs that can be the springboard for a new revolution in studying brain function, helping us to answer the biggest questions in neuroscience: How does the brain process information? What is the neural basis of behavior? How can we relate brain to mind?
Planning for the NIH BRAIN Initiative is well underway. NIH Director Francis Collins appointed a group of 15 external advisors, the BRAIN team, co-chaired by Cornelia Bargmann from Rockefeller University and William Newsome from Stanford University, to lead the effort. Their charge was to develop a scientific plan that will identify areas of high priority (i.e. improving current tools, identifying new directions) and deliver specific recommendations for timelines, milestones, and cost estimates.
To ensure broad scientific input to the development of the plan, the BRAIN team organized four meetings this summer. The first in San Francisco addressed molecular approaches. The second in New York City will focus on large-scale recording techniques. The third meeting in Boston will address computation, theory, and big data. The final meeting in Minneapolis will consider human measurements and analysis. Meeting agendas and summaries are to be posted on the BRAIN Initiative section of the NIH website, which also provides an opportunity for community input including contributing by submitting ideas that NIH staff will provide to the NIH BRAIN team. A draft plan will be presented to the Advisory Committee to the NIH director in December 2013 and the final plan completed in June 2014.
What will the BRAIN Initiative cost? The President has asked for roughly $100 million across the three federal agencies to launch the first year. He noted that it’s going to require a “serious effort, a sustained effort.” The actual NIH budget for 2014 will be determined by Congress and may not be final for several months. Nevertheless, NIH’s intention is to commit at least $40 million for new projects within BRAIN next year and to ramp up this commitment in subsequent years. To allow us time to issue requests for applications that would be funded in 2014, we have asked the Bargmann-Newsome team to provide some initial recommendations by the fall of 2013. These recommendations would be incorporated into the draft and final plans.
In the first year, much of the NIH funding will come from sources set aside for special projects. One of the largest contributions ($10 million) will be from the NIH Neuroscience Blueprint, a consortium of 15 institutes and centers at NIH developed to support cross-cutting initiatives like technology development and neuroscience training. The NIH director’s office, which has funds to support new, bold projects, will be the other major contributor ($10 million). The balance will be contributed by individual institutes, including NIBIB, NIDA, NIMH, and NINDS. Each of us normally sets aside funds for initiatives. Recognizing the importance of and potential payoff from the development of new technologies, we will invest a portion of our initiative funds in BRAIN with little impact on our paylines.
Since at least 15 NIH institutes and centers fund neuroscience research, we wanted this project to involve many parts of NIH rather than be embedded in a single institute or center. The NIH Blueprint has for the past seven years successfully managed common initiatives including the Human Connectome, the Neuroinformatics Framework, the Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Project, training programs, and a host of R01s and R21s. It is the logical home for NIH BRAIN. NIH BRAIN will also need to synergize with plans developing at DARPA and NSF, as well as projects outside of government and some ambitious new efforts outside of the United States, such as the European Human Brain Project.
The President ended his announcement of the BRAIN Initiative by saying, “I don’t want our children or grandchildren to look back on this day and wish we had done more to keep America at the cutting edge. I want them to look back and be proud that we took some risks, that we seized this opportunity.” The combination of public health need and scientific opportunity is really why the BRAIN Initiative is “the next great American project”. As with the previous “great American project”, the Human Genome Project, the first step of the BRAIN Initiative is a careful, inclusive, deliberate planning process. Mapping the brain is quite different from mapping the genome – there will be no obvious endpoint and no linear sequence to decode. But the lessons learned from this earlier effort – lessons about tool development, ethical implications, and partnerships — can be helpful as we launch a new, even more daunting adventure. We predict that the BRAIN Initiative will transform neuroscience and, in addition, yield better diagnostics and therapeutics for the billions worldwide who suffer from brain disorders.