Administration’s BRAIN Initiative

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Publication date: 
3 April 2013

Physics, optics, nanoscience, and imaging were highlighted in a Fact Sheet released by the White House yesterday following President Obama’s announcement about the BRAIN Initiative: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. 

When the President sends his FY 2014 budget request to Congress a week from today it will seek $50 million for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, $40 million for the National Institutes of Health, and $20 million for the National Science Foundation to fund research related to this initiative.  Four prominent private institutes and foundations will also provide funding.

The President described the initiative’s objectives in an East Room Ceremony at the White House yesterday. The White House explained that the “Initiative ultimately aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.”


“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.  These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.”

Guiding this effort will be a NIH working group co-chaired by Cori Bargmann of The Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University. 

The White House described the research to be funded by DARPA, NIH, and NSF as follows:

DARPA: “In FY 2014, DARPA plans to invest $50 million in a set of programs with the goal of understanding the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrating breakthrough applications based on these insights.  DARPA aims to develop a new set of tools to capture and process dynamic neural and synaptic activities.  DARPA is interested in applications - such as a new generation of information processing systems and restoration mechanisms - that dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat warfighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury, and memory loss.  DARPA will engage a broad range of experts to explore the ethical, legal, and societal issues raised by advances in neurotechnology.”

NIH: “The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research - an initiative that pools resources and expertise from across 15 NIH Institutes and Centers - will be a leading NIH contributor to the implementation of this initiative in FY 2014.  The Blueprint program will contribute funding for the initiative, given that the Blueprint funds are specifically devoted to projects that support the development of new tools, training opportunities, and other resources.”

NSF: “The National Science Foundation will play an important role in the BRAIN Initiative because of its ability to support research that spans biology, the physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social and behavioral sciences.  The National Science Foundation intends to support approximately $20 million in FY 2014 in research that will advance this initiative, such as the development of molecular-scale probes that can sense and record the activity of neural networks; advances in ‘Big Data’ that are necessary to analyze the huge amounts of information that will be generated, and increased understanding of how thoughts, emotions, actions, and memories are represented in the brain.”

Four private sources will provide significant support.  The Allen Institute for Brain Science will provide $60 million annually.  The Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced it will provide $30 million every year.  The Kavli Foundation will donate $4 million every year for the next ten years.  The Salk Institute for Biological Studies will provide $28 million for the initiative.

The White House release highlighted the contributions that physics and its subfields have made to previous research on the brain:

“In the last decade alone, scientists have made a number of landmark discoveries that now create the opportunity to unlock the mysteries of the brain, including the sequencing of the human genome, the development of new tools for mapping neuronal connections, the increasing resolution of imaging technologies, and the explosion of nanoscience. These breakthroughs have paved the way for unprecedented collaboration and discovery across scientific fields. For instance, by combining advanced genetic and optical techniques, scientists can now use pulses of light to determine how specific cell activities in the brain affect behavior. In addition, through the integration of neuroscience and physics, researchers can now use high-resolution imaging technologies to observe how the brain is structurally and functionally connected in living humans. 

“While these technological innovations have contributed substantially to our expanding knowledge of the brain, significant breakthroughs in how we treat neurological and psychiatric disease will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds. This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science and engineering.”

Following the announcement, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) quoted Cantor as saying “Mapping the human brain is exactly the type of research we should be's great science."