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Director’s Blog: NIMH’s BRAINS Awards—In Support of Creativity

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One of the three core research themes of the NIMH Strategic Plan is that all advances rest on our ability to support and train future generations of mental health scientists.  Seven young investigators recently gathered at the institute’s headquarters for a ceremony recognizing them as the first recipients of NIMH’s new BRAINS awards—Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists.

The BRAINS initiative was created to support the research programs and career development of outstanding scientists who are in the early, formative stages of their careers and who plan to make a long term commitment to research most relevant to NIMH.  This award seeks to assist these individuals in launching an innovative clinical, translational, or basic research program that holds the potential to profoundly transform the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of mental disorders.

While these awards fund specific projects, they are truly an investment in specific people.  They were inspired by the success of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards, both of which are designed to provide support for innovative research that has the potential for unusually high impact on health science.  The hope is that BRAINS awards will give early stage investigators enough flexibility to take risks on tough problems that are central to neuroscience and to the understanding of mental illness, such as the nature and development of neural circuits and the genetic factors and environmental influences that both shape and disrupt them.

The BRAINS program awards up to $1.625 million over 5 years for early career scientists focusing on a gap area identified in the institute’s Strategic Plan.  This year’s emphasis was neurodevelopment.  At the recent award ceremony, the seven 2009 recipients described their projects:

  •  Sean Deoni of Brown University School of Engineering is using cutting edge imaging techniques to track white matter development—a basic element of brain connectivity—and  changes in structure and function in children up to age 5.
  • Daniel Dickstein of Brown University School of Medicine is using behavioral testing, brain scans, and genetic data to identify biomarkers that could help predict the development of bipolar disorder.
  • Stephen Gilman of Harvard University is looking at social and economic influences early in life (including prenatal effects) in the development of depression.
  • Daniela Kaufer of the University of California, Berkeley, is using rats to study how stress in early life can alter neurodevelopment, including the generation of new neurons and neural connections.
  • Nicholas Sokol, Indiana University at Bloomington, is using a fruit fly model to study the molecular foundations of neuroplasticity, and how development of the brain is altered by internal influences, such as hormones, and external events.
  • Consuelo Walss-Bass of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is looking at the role of the immune system in brain development and behavior in adolescence.
  • Linda Wilbrecht of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco is studying how experience interacts with development to sculpt brain circuits and shape behavior in the age range analogous to adolescence in mice. 

These creative and ambitious projects are inspiring—we’re honored to help foster the early careers of these scientists.  In a funding environment that can be daunting for a young investigator seeking to do cutting edge research, BRAINS is intended as a promise to these individuals that we will support them to follow their most innovative ideas.  We look forward to the insights that will emerge from their efforts.

NIMH's BRAINS Award
Photo of Recipients of NIMH’s BRAINS awards with institute staff, from left:  Philip Wang, Deputy Director, NIMH; Kathleen Anderson, Deputy Director, Division of Development Translational Research, NIMH; award recipients Nicholas Sokol, Sean Deoni, Stephen Gilman, Consuelo Walss-Bass, Daniel Dickstein, Daniela Kaufer, and Linda Wilbrecht; and Thomas R. Insel, Director, NIMH.
Recipients of NIMH’s BRAINS awards with institute staff, from left: Philip Wang, Deputy Director, NIMH; Kathleen Anderson, Deputy Director, Division of Development Translational Research, NIMH; award recipients Nicholas Sokol, Sean Deoni, Stephen Gilman, Consuelo Walss-Bass, Daniel Dickstein, Daniela Kaufer, and Linda Wilbrecht; and Thomas R. Insel, Director, NIMH.