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The Next Frontier in Medical Research: Mapping the Brain

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President Obama made history this week by announcing an ambitious plan to explore medicine's most important and challenging frontiers: the workings of the human brain. He plans to ask Congress for $100 million in 2014 for the BRAIN Initiative, which holds the potential of gaining insight into conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

This initiative is both critical and timely. The Administration is responding to existing and future problems that are straining the fabric of our social safety net. Among those is the growth in cases of Alzheimer's disease, expected to triple over the next 40 years. The BRAIN initiative could result in new treatments. For example, some research indicates that Alzheimer's spreads from cell to cell in the brain, using the connections between cells. With a better understanding of those connections, we may be able to identify interventions that would stop the spreading.

We know that examining the human brain is essential for neurological disorders like Alzheimer's, but it is also key for vision diseases like macular degeneration, a major cause of visual impairment in the United States. As many as 11 million Americans have some form of macular degeneration, including both early and later stages of the wet and dry forms. This number is expected to double to nearly 22 million by 2050.

The cost of adequately funding scientific research of brain and eye diseases is small compared to the cost of failing to do so. Total U.S. health care expenditure, including Medicare, Medicaid, long-term care, loss of wages, and other indirect costs, for Alzheimer's disease alone is $200 billion. And yet budget cuts for research continue, despite the widely recognized impending health crisis brought on by these diseases. A recent survey of biomedical scientists who have been awarded grants by BrightFocus Foundation finds that 91 percent of respondents say a lack of funding is driving scientists from the field.

The outcomes of the BRAIN initiative are likely to include increasing the amount and power of data exponentially; bringing medical imaging to new levels of resolution; and creating our next generation of computers. Like our nation's experience with the Human Genome project, discoveries in one area of science will lead to revolutionary discoveries in other areas.

The BRAIN project will have enormous benefits to public health for generations to come. And as the President noted, it is a national investment that will pay off in ways not yet imagined and is likely to create jobs not yet dreamed of. This is indeed a grand challenge, and Congress should approve funding immediately.