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Supporting BRAIN: Research for Cures

White House BRAIN InitiativeA promising start

In April 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative, an effort intended to take brain research to the next level and advance understanding of perhaps the most important and least understood object in biomedical science today—the human brain.

The initial announcement was made with great fanfare, though relatively little funding was promised at that point to support the initiative. Since then, however, many government agencies and private foundations and institutions have dedicated funding and resources to this important effort to understand the brain and its disorders better. Hundreds of funded grants have already begun to produce results, for example, improved ways of turning neurons on and off in experimental animals and a design for a brain-scanning helmet that can create PET scans of people while they are active.

The need to push forward

So far, the BRAIN Initiative has had strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Each year since its inception, both Democratic and Republican supporters of neuroscience have insured that funding for the BRAIN Initiative continues and even increases. Additionally, both the House and the Senate have recently passed the 21st Century Cures Act with overwhelming support; among other things, this act provides funding to the BRAIN Initiative for years to come.

Understanding something as complex at the human brain, with its billions of neurons and trillions of connections guiding our thoughts, behavior, emotions, and body functions, is a long-term endeavor. It’s important that we as a nation continue to invest in the BRAIN Initiative in the coming years, as it is only beginning to lead to discoveries that will help advance our understanding of the brain. We hope that the next Administration and Congress will also prioritize this effort and provide robust funding for the BRAIN Initiative. The resulting research promises life-changing discoveries to help people living with mental illnesses and other brain disorders.

What exactly is the BRAIN Initiative?

Its full name is Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), because the focus is on creating better tools to help us look inside the brain. It’s extremely difficult to see into our brains while they are at work, and our existing brain scan technology is pretty crude!

Compare studying the brain to exploring outer space. First, we need a spaceship, and all sorts of equipment to run the spaceship and study what we find out in space. We’ve built some spaceships already, but to take people to Mars (for example) we need something beyond what we’ve already made. Same thing with the brain: we have some great ways of looking at the brain, like PET, fMRI and exciting new tools like CLARITY, but we still need better tools for looking at brains in action. We need these tools because at this point, we still don’t have a very good understanding of how the brain works. We have put together a few pieces of the puzzle, but without better views of the tiny components of our brains and how they interact, it’s impossible to fit many more puzzle pieces together (or even find all the pieces!).

Currently, we still cannot successfully treat many of the common and devastating brain disorders that affect so many people:  schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so many other disorders. We treat symptoms because we don’t understand the causes.

As an analogy, we do not treat heart disease by trying to alleviate the pain in someone’s chest—we have figured out what is causing that pain, so we try to treat the cause. Even better, we try to prevent heart disease through lifestyle choices. None of that is possible yet with mental illnesses, Parkinson’s, or other brain disorders. We are still limited to treating symptoms, like psychosis, without any sense of what is really causing them.

To that end, the initiative has a broad mission: “The BRAIN Initiative seeks to deepen understanding of the inner workings of the human mind and to improve how we treat, prevent, and cure disorders of the brain.” It’s a tall order, but we need to be making the effort!

More Reading

Explore the details of the BRAIN Initiative at its website.

Read a discussion about the early achievements of the BRAIN Initiative.

Watch a great TED talk by a scientist who helped develop the BRAIN Initiative: When should science shoot for the moon?

 

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