On September 30, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a $46 million investment in new tools to study the brain in action. The work of more than 100 neurobiologists, chemists, physicists and engineers, these tools seem to emerge from a futurist’s fantasy. Infrared tags to visualize brain chemistry from outside the brain in real time. A device that can monitor thousands of nerve cells for months while delivering drugs or electrical pulses. A system for altering information flow across the brain using radio waves and magnetic nanoparticles. Even to a scientist, this technological mash-up hardly seems possible.
These futuristic projects are the NIH’s first investment in the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which was launched by President Obama in 2013. The BRAIN Initiative is a broad scientific effort to discover how the human brain generates its unique cognitive abilities—reason and intuition, creativity and habits, experiences and memories, emotions, language and actions. Along the way, scientists hope to uncover clues to how these abilities wax and wane—and with these clues, ideas for treating some of the most crippling brain disorders.
The human brain is our greatest strength but also our greatest weakness. One out of three people will suffer from a disabling brain disorder at some point in life, and every family will grapple with the consequences of a brain disorder firsthand. The list of possible ailments is long: autism or learning disabilities in children, schizophrenia or depression in young adults, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or stroke in older adults, among many others. These disorders exact a profound human toll, but they also have an economic cost. To pick just one example: the United States currently spends more than $200 billion a year caring for well over 5 million patients with dementia—numbers that are bound to increase as our life span grows longer.
What makes brain disorders particularly challenging is that modern medicine can do too little for too few. Moreover, a stream of failures in developing new drugs for Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia has led many pharmaceutical companies to scale back their efforts in these areas. As frustration builds, a consensus is emerging on an explanation: we cannot treat brain disorders because we do not understand enough about the brain. We are like drunks looking for our keys in the dark. Who will turn on the lights?
This is the goal of the BRAIN Initiative: to illuminate the deepest folds of our most mysterious organ. Its original leaders were the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and several private foundations. First among the latter was the Kavli Foundation, which posed the problem and proposed an initiative over a series of meetings and papers. Since then, other foundations, universities and private companies have signed on to the effort, holding their first joint meeting at the White House on September 30 (the same day the NIH grants were announced).