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BRAIN Initiative Gets (a Little) More Detailed

17 September 2013 3:45 pm
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NIH

Shaping up. In a highly anticipated report, the mysterious BRAIN Initiative begins to take form.

Last April, the neuroscience community erupted in a flurry of speculation when President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative—a proposed $110 million investment in neuroscience research. To hammer out a plan for its $40 million contribution, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recruited 15 top scientists to identify research priorities. Yesterday, after a summer of meetings and discussion, the scientific team released its first attempt to put some meat on the bones of the project.

The team’s report lists nine top research priorities, all geared toward developing tools to help scientists understanding how linked “circuits” of neurons work together, to produce behaviors such as emotion, for example. The report highlights the need for cheaper, faster technologies that can trace connections between individual brain cells and record large networks of cells acting in synchrony. It calls for development of tools that can manipulate neural circuits in both animals and humans, and for new ways of handling and processing the vast amounts of data that the BRAIN project is expected to produce. And it lays out principles for how the research within the BRAIN Initiative should proceed, such as sharing data publicly and helping researchers learn new skills.

People who follow the field of neuroscience “won’t find anything in these recommendations boggling or shocking,” says Gerald Rubin, executive director of the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia. Overall, the recommendations are “fair, balanced, and reflect consensus in the field,” he says. That something-for-everyone approach, however, means that the $40 million that NIH has pledged to the project will run out long before it meets its goals, he cautions. “This is a call to action to Congress” to see if the project can get $500 million—not $110 million—in government investment, Rubin says. In the meantime, the advisory committee will need to sort through its ideas and make tough decisions about which are ready to scale up, he says.

A final, more detailed plan of action will be released in June 2014—this “interim” version is intended “to inspire innovative scientists to come and join us,” and give researchers time to prepare their grant proposals, says NIH Director Francis Collins. NIH may also be hedging its bets, however. Its 2014 budget remains uncertain as Congress has not approved a final spending plan for any agency. A larger budget showdown may force all government agencies into operating indefinitely at 2013 budget levels or lower starting next month. Even in challenging budget times, however, NIH expects the agency to spend about $40 million on the initiative, Collins says. He emphasizes that NIH’s plan applies only to its own portion of the BRAIN project—neither the National Science Foundation, which has committed $20 million to the project, nor the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has pledged $50 million, has released a road map for their research, or explained how they are setting priorities. 

Not everyone is happy with the interim report. Already, complaints that NIH priorities do not include creating repositories of brain tissue, called brain banks, and that clinicians were not sufficiently involved in the planning process, have surfaced. “Perhaps the discontent of the neurologists is a strong hint that this needs to be emphasized more,” says Partha Mitra, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. However, “one can’t do everything,” says Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. He adds that several clinicians were, in fact, included in the process. (Neither scientist is on the 15-member “dream team,” but both contributed during the summer meetings.)  

Although many neuroscientists are beginning to position themselves to apply for BRAIN funding, “a lot of people are waiting on the sidelines” to see if the money comes through in NIH’s 2014 budget, Lipkin says. Researchers in disciplines such as computer science and engineering are likely to need more assurance before investing time and energy going after BRAIN funds, he says: “They are going to need to see some commitment.” He adds that international collaborations will be “crucial” to the project’s long-term financial and scientific success.

For some, concern that the BRAIN Initiative will be an unwieldy, “top-down” federal science project seems to have been at least temporarily allayed. The report “presents a community view about the current neuroscience zeitgeist ("circuits") rather than a goal for a big science project,” Mitra says. “This is an improvement over the initially narrow focus,” he says. Karl Deisseroth, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California who served on the 15-member “dream team,” says that he has been “heartened” by the process of producing the recommendations. “I have seen zero politics at any stage of the process, which has been refreshingly focused on the science and the enormous opportunity,” he says.  

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