NIH Details Plan for BRAIN Initiative

17 December 2013 6:15 pm
Big ideas. Ambitious NIH grant applications for the BRAIN Initiative are due by March.

Xavier Gigandet et. al./Wikimedia Commons

Big ideas. Ambitious NIH grant applications for the BRAIN Initiative are due by March.

After nearly a year of meetings and public debate, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced how it intends to spend its share of funding for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a $110 million U.S. effort to jump-start the development of new technologies that can map the brain’s vast and intricate neural circuits in action. In short, it’s looking for big ideas, such as taking a census of all the cells in the brain, even if there’s little data so far on how to accomplish them.

The agency is calling for grant applications in six “high-priority” research areas drawn from a September report by its 15-member scientific advisory committee for the project. The agency is committing to spend roughly $40 million per year for 3 years on these areas, says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “We hope that there will be additional funds that will become available, but obviously that depends upon what our budget is,” she says. 

The six funding streams center almost exclusively on proof-of-concept testing and development of new technologies and novel approaches for tasks considered fundamental to understanding how neurons work together to produce behavior in the brain; for example, classifying different types of brain cells, and determining how they contribute to specific neural circuits. NIH’s focus on innovation means that most grant applicants will not have to supply preliminary data for their proposals—a departure from “business as usual” that will likely startle many scientists and reviewers but is necessary to give truly innovative ideas a fair shot, Landis says. Only one call for funding, aimed at optimizing existing technologies for recording and manipulating large numbers of neurons that “aren’t ready for prime time,” will require such background, she says.

Now that the requests have been released, all applications are due by March 2014 or earlier, Landis says. The review process will take several months, but “we want to have the money out the door by September,” Landis says. If one adds up the funds available for all six of the requests for proposals (listed below), it comes to more than $40 million per year, because “we simply don’t know which of these RFAs will end up producing the most exciting results,” Landis acknowledges. She says this initial round of grants will be an audition period, allowing NIH to determine which projects have most promise and warrant a second round of funding.

NIH today released six requests for applications for funding for its portion of the BRAIN Initiative. They include:

1. $10 million, five to eight awards: Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

Develop new classification strategies for the brain’s different cell types, with the goal of ultimately creating a census of all the cells in the human brain.

2. $5 million, seven to 10 awards: Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

Develop new genetic and nongenetic tools to perform more sensitive, precise, and detailed analyses of brain circuits.

3. $7.5 million, 10 to 15 awards: New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System

Develop new technologies that can record and manipulate the activity of large numbers of neurons at the resolution of individual calls, in any region of the brain.

4. $7.5 million, 10 to 15 awards: Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System

Bring existing technologies for large-scale recording and modulation of neurons up to snuff.

5. $10 million, 10 to 15 awards: Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

Create interdisciplinary teams to study how circuit activity contributes to specific behaviors or neural systems. 

6. $4 million, seven to nine awards: Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

Create teams of imaging scientists, engineers, material scientists, nanotechnologists, and computer scientists to plan for a new generation of noninvasive imaging techniques for the human brain.