By Gabrielle Rabinowitz

Obama announcing the BRAIN initiative
Obama announcing the BRAIN initiative

In February, the media was abuzz in response to President Obama’s pledge to fund the creation of a Brain Activity Map (BAM). Reporters erroneously promised a comprehensive human brain map, complete with cures for neuropsychiatric disorders, while glossing over the fact that BAM was actually more about technology development using model organisms. I joined a growing number of commentators on the project, presenting arguments for why this seemed like a 3 Billion Dollar Mistake.

On April 2, 2013, the White House formalized the proposal, rebranding it as the BRAIN Initiative (a tortured backronym for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies; #BRAINI). Here, I’ll break down the main aims of the project along with the strengths and weaknesses of the BRAIN initiative and the associated PR campaign.

The Goal

The White House announcement summarizes the BRAIN initiative as follows:

The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.

The Funding

Government:

$40 million in the first year: National Institutes of Health (NIH), via the existing NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, which also includes the Human Connectome Project.

$50 million in the first year: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

+     $20 million in the first year: National Science Foundation (NSF)

$120 million total in the first year

Private

$60 million annually: Allen Institute for Brain Science

$30 million annually: Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)

$4 million annually: Kavli Foundation

+     $28 million over 10 years: Salk Institute for Biological Studies

~$100 million per year

If the government manages to scrounge up $100 million every year (so far they’ve only committed to one) and the BRAIN initiative lasts for the proposed 10 years, the total funds for the initiative could reach $2 billion. That’s less than the $3 billion initially promised, but it’s still sizeable. Regardless, the BRAIN initiative is a big investment.

The Labs

Investigators at the private research institutes listed above are surely going to be working on BRAIN initiative-funded projects, but researchers in other institutions will get a shot at the funds too. Government derived (and possibly some private) BRAIN initiative funds will be awarded to labs that can make a case for their research. Luckily, there’s a team of scientists in charge of choosing which labs are worthy, which brings us to…

The Scientific Advisors

The NIH has assembled an all-star team of neuroscientists to chart the course for the BRAIN initiative and take it from a nebulous “initiative” to an actual research enterprise. This Advisory Committee to the NIH Director will articulate the goals of the BRAIN initiative and develop a scientific plan. The committee’s first report on high-priority investments is due in fall 2013, and their final plan will be presented to the NIH in June 2014.

The Good:

The NIH Advisory Committee is one of the best features of the BRAIN initiative. The co-chairs of the committee are Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann, a highly acclaimed researcher from The Rockefeller University who studies the nervous system of C. elegans worms; and Bill Newsome, a professor at Stanford who studies the primate visual system. I cited Bargmann in my initial post as a voice of reason in the world of “brain mappers.” She has been critical of large-scale neuroscience initiatives in the past, and will help guide the BRAIN initiative with care and scientific rigor.

The real mission is clear; It’s technology development. The initial BAM announcements focused on brain “mapping” with little attention paid to how scientists were supposed to actually accomplish those goals. Now, thanks to the recent White House announcement, the true focus of the project has been put right in the title (remember that the “AIN” of the BRAIN initiative stands for “Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies”). This will hopefully dissuade hype-happy journalists from presenting the BRAIN initiative as a straight-to-application project.

The BRAIN initiative funding won’t subtract from the pool of general grant money, as confirmed by Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, in a live answer session on the White House blog.

There is an emphasis on public input and open access. The BRAIN initiative results will be open to all researchers. Whether or not they’ll be behind a paywall, or written for a general audience, remains to be seen. The NIH statement also claims that the advisory committee will “seek input broadly from the scientific community, patient advocates, and the general public.” This is welcome news to scientists who have been actively discussing BAM and the BRAIN initiative on blogs and Twitter.

The Not-so-good:

BRAIN initiative coverage in the press is still focused on curing diseases in the human brain. While it’s true that techniques like CLARITY are bringing us a lot closer to large scale mapping of the human brain, most of the BRAIN initiative-funded technologies are going to involve model organisms like fruit flies or mice. These are great systems for technology development, but any conclusions drawn from those animal studies will take years of validation before they can be applied to humans.

Even worse, the BRAIN initiative PR team is selling the initiative by promising cures for neurological diseases. The tools developed using BRAIN initiative funds will be used to increase our understanding of how brains work. Any therapies for brain disorders stemming from this research would be an added bonus, not a primary goal or a benchmark for success. If the BRAIN initiative was designed to develop therapies for schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, it would be an altogether different initiative, involving genomics, clinical trials, and more targeted studies. That might be worth funding, but it is not the BRAIN initiative, and it is dishonest to claim otherwise.

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In my opinion, the BRAIN initiative will be a strong source of funding for new neuroscience technologies. However, neuroscience is not the only field of research that deserves such attention, especially in light of wide ranging sequestration cuts. Hopefully policy makers will take the good from the BRAIN initiative – while avoiding the PR pitfalls – to fund wide-ranging scientific endeavors in the future.

Read more:

  • The list of BRAIN initiative response pieces grows longer by the day, but Jason Pipkin has done an excellent job of keeping track of them all on his blog. Check out the list here.

  • I would especially like to point out the ongoing BRAIN initiative coverage over at Nucleus Ambiguous. Michael Carroll has kept up a steady stream of thoughtful, well-researched pieces since the BRAIN initiative was still BAM and his blog is a great resource.

Follow Gabrielle on Twitter (@GabrielleRab) or browse her articles here.