04/05/2013 07:56 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

BRAIN Initiative: A Bold Venture Into Brain Science

A top priority for science in the United States is the encouragement of high-risk, high-reward research, the kind that has the potential for transformational, rather than incremental, discoveries. In times of tight budgets, such research is typically underfunded and underappreciated, because it can too easily be ridiculed for being outlandish or mistaken, although even wrong paths in science can be illuminating in profound ways. That is what makes President Obama's announcement this week of a revolutionary initiative into brain research so incredibly exciting: It's a high-risk venture with significant and attainable high rewards.

The implementation of a new research initiative designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain is a bold step forward for science and has been likened in many ways to the highly successful Human Genome Project from a few years back. Launched with approximately $100 million in funding in the president's budget for fiscal year 2014, BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is a courageous, much-needed, high-risk, high-reward effort that will provide basic but significant research insights in neuroscience and will have a major applied impact on health and human well-being far into the future.

Why is this important, and why now? With nearly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the human brain is one of the greatest mysteries in science and one of the greatest challenges in medicine. Neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression and various maladies resulting from traumatic brain injury, exact a tremendous emotional and fiscal toll on individuals, families and society. Despite the advances in neuroscience in recent years, the underlying basic causes of most neurological and psychiatric conditions remain largely unknown. In order to develop effective ways of helping people suffering from these devastating conditions and do predictive and prophylactic measures to provide treatment before the initiation of a disease state, researchers will need a more complete arsenal of tools and information for understanding how the brain functions, both in healthy and disease-stricken individuals.

BRAIN will accelerate the development and application of these new technologies to enable researchers to not only produce dynamic pictures of the brain but, more importantly, provide an in-depth understanding of how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. Such tools will allow exploration of how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information, and they will provide insight into the complex relationships between brain function and behavior.

BRAIN Initiatives include:
  • Key investments to jumpstart the effort: The National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation will support approximately $100 million in research beginning in fiscal year 2014.
  • Strong academic leadership: The NIH will establish a high-level working group co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia "Cori" Bargmann of The Rockefeller University and Dr. William Newsome of Stanford University, to define detailed scientific goals for the NIH's investment, and to develop a multi-year scientific plan for achieving these goals, including timetables, milestones and cost estimates.
  • Public-private partnerships: Federal research agencies will partner with companies, foundations and private research institutions that are also investing in relevant neuroscience research, such as the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
  • Maintaining our highest ethical standards: Pioneering research often has the potential to raise new ethical challenges. To ensure that this new effort proceeds in ways that continue to adhere to our highest standards of research protections, the president will direct his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore all ethical, legal and societal implications raised by this research initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience.

The BRAIN initiative is major a project at the interface of basic and applied research and should be applauded for its innovative and high-risk, high-reward approach to big science. However, as one might suspect, concerns have already been raised about the impact of a large federal expenditure on BRAIN and how that might affect other areas of science that many perceive as already "cut to the bone." The Human Genome Project is a good example of how it can work. The human genome was sequenced with new money rather than money reapportioned from other areas of federally supported science. Although that may not be fully possible for BRAIN, the presence of other funding and intellectual partners will minimize its impact on federal budgets.

The federal government's financial commitment to brain research is modest compared with some expectations, which had set a price tag as high as $3 billion on the brain-mapping initiative. And it is far less than the successful but costly Human Genome Project. The federal funding package for BRAIN in 2014 is $100 million, with $40 million coming from distribution contributions from various NIH Institutes, a similar contribution from DARPA and $20 million targeted by the NSF. And much of the federal dollar package reflects amplification of existing research aspects in BRAIN-related studies. The private foundations noted above will overmatch the federal contribution, providing $122 million collectively on an annual basis for the next decade to support this initiative, and resources from private companies are anticipated to substantially complement, and perhaps surpass, the federal and foundational commitments.

The next several years will be exciting as we watch the data flow from the convergent efforts of scientists working on this project. But we must also recognize that the research coming from this important initiative will likely also open doors to new ideas and opportunities that will need continued support -- from the government, from foundations and from industry -- so as to sustain the thriving community of scholars that will inevitably grow from this initial "seed" funding. Such is the way of science: puzzles solved, new questions raised and new strategies evolved.