Friday, October 3, 2014

NIH Announces $46M BRAIN Initiative Grants

From a blog called: Aging and Parkinson's and Me

Originally Posted: 02 Oct 2014 05:36 AM PDT

With news outlets – and their consumers – focused on ISIL, ebola, and the White House gate jumper, a press release issued on Tuesday, September 30 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) didn't garner much attention. But the news it announced will probably mean a lot more to people 50 years from now than those other issues.

Here's how that release began:
The National Institutes of Health announced today its first wave of investments totaling $46 million in fiscal year 14 funds to support the goals of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. More than 100 investigators in 15 states and several countries will work to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action. These new tools and this deeper understanding will ultimately catalyze new treatments and cures for devastating brain disorders and diseases that are estimated by the World Health Organization to affect more than one billion people worldwide.
As you might imagine, NIH's director Dr. Francis Collins was pretty excited about the news. On his September 30 blog post, Collins compared the efforts to more fully understand the human brain to the 1969 moonshot -- plans that President Kennedy announced to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961. 

Many observers thought the president was crazy and his plan way too ambitious. But just eight years later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. Collins and his NIH team hope for similar successes, though surely not so fast in coming.

In his posting, Collins restated the goal of the BRAIN Initiative:
To produce the first dynamic view of the human brain in action, revealing how its roughly 86 billion neurons and its trillions of connections interact in real time. This new view will revolutionize our understanding of how we think, feel, learn, remember, and move, transforming efforts to help the more than 1 billion people worldwide who suffer from autism, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other devastating brain disorders.
When President Obama introduced the BRAIN Initiative to some fanfare last year, he explained that NIH was one of four federal agencies involved in the enterprising project. The other three are the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

NIH's just-announced grants will fund 58 different projects detailed on its website. Most of those grants "focus on developing transformative technologies that will accelerate fundamental neuroscience research." They include: 
  • classifying the myriad cell types in the brain 
  • producing tools and techniques for analyzing brain cells and circuits 
  • creating next-generation human brain imaging technology 
  • developing methods for large-scale recordings of brain activity 
  • integrating experiments with theories and models to understand the functions of specific brain circuits 
To get a "flavor" of the projects, here are brief overviews of just three of those 58 projects: 
  • In this project, Dr. Yoon's team will make optogenetics, a technique that enables scientists to turn neurons on and off with flashes of light, more precise and diverse by creating light sources that will enable control of specific neuronal circuits with a variety of lasers. 
  • Dr. Wang and his collaborators will test a way to image the electrical activity of neurons deep inside the brain, using a variation on ultrasound imaging he invented called photoacoustic tomography.
  • Dr. Kleinfeld and his colleagues will use a variety of tools and techniques to create detailed maps of circuits in the brainstem, the region that regulates many life-sustaining functions such as breathing and swallowing, and match the circuits to actions they control.
Many of the NIH awards will fund projects that involve rodent – or fruit fly – brains. Experience has made very clear the cavernous gulf between those structures and the human brain. Still, it's an impressive list of projects.

NIH Director Collins further explained the Initiative:
The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe. We've only just scratched the surface in understanding how it works — or, unfortunately, doesn't quite work when disorders and disease occur," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "There's a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make exploration possible. These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain. This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey and we're excited about the possibilities.
Story Landis, Ph.D., is director of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. He said, "We are at a critical juncture for brain research, and these audacious projects are from some of the brightest researchers in neuroscience collaborating with physicists and engineers."

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  • The White House's webpage  webpage further explains the BRAIN Initiative, its significance, and "how far we've already come"
  • Here's NIH's page for the BRAIN Initiative.
  • Last December on this blog, I provided an update on the BRAIN Initiative.

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