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Director’s Blog: BRAINS—A New Research Generation

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One worked for the CIA as a code breaker. Another was an electrical engineer designing high tech circuits. Altogether there were ten young scientists from diverse and in some cases unlikely backgrounds who have become the latest cohort of NIMH BRAINS awardees. BRAINS—a much-used acronym—in this case stands for Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists. Since 2009, NIMH has funded 38 extraordinary early stage investigators with exciting ideas. Each receives a 5-year award totaling $1.6 million.

As budgets have become tighter in recent years, competition for research funding has become more intense. The average age of the recipient of a first-time NIH independent investigator award (R01 grant) is over 42. In the past decades, the proportion of investigators with R01 support over age 65 has increased steadily while the proportion of investigators under 35 has approached zero.1 These trends contrast with the experience of many scientists that their most disruptive ideas—the kind of disruption that leads to revelatory new science—emerge early in their careers. This certainly conflicts with the NIMH need for a new generation of scientists with backgrounds in fields like engineering and computational and cognitive sciences to help us solve our most complex problems.

BRAINS was designed to address this disconnect between the trends in funding and the need to engage this new generation with new approaches to research support. In contrast to standard NIH awards, BRAINS focuses on supporting the person as well as the project. These awards give a select group of early stage investigators a license to take risks, to explore new approaches, and even to fail. It’s too early to know what the impact of this program will be, but already some 146 papers have been published from the 2009 – 2011 cohorts of 28 awardees and nearly two thirds have received additional funding to pursue their best ideas.

The most recent class of BRAINS awardees gathered together in San Diego at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last November to meet each other. The energy in the room could have powered the city: the ideas being discussed are exactly what the BRAINS program is about—research that brings together innovative technology and bold thinking to explore old problems in startling new ways. Who are the new BRAINS awardees? It’s a diverse group. A few examples:

Kristen Brennand, Ph.D., of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine will be using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with childhood onset schizophrenia to study how regulatory signals shape—and disrupt—the development of brain cells in this disorder. The use of iPSCs allows these investigators to recapitulate development and trace the molecular and cellular pathways that lead to disease.

Srijan Sen, M.D.,Ph.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, is focusing on the genetics of depression in people under stress. Using medical internship as a model for stress, this prospective longitudinal study will investigate the interactive role of genes and environmental stress effects in risk for depression.

Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill will study the cortical rhythms and activity patterns that represent sensory processing—the characteristic electrical activity in the brain that marks when it is engaged in responding to sensory input. The investigators will then test the hypothesis that inducing these patterns of brain activity can enhance sensory processing and cognition, which is disrupted in psychiatric illness.

Cameron Craddock, Ph.D., of the Child Mind Institute in New York will be using real-time fMRI neurofeedback to regulate brain activity. He will compare the modulation of one’s intrinsic brain activity when instructed to do so and the tendency to do so during periods of self-reflection and will study these processes in individuals with varying degrees of psychiatric symptoms.

What’s next for BRAINS? The program will continue with an updated announcement that will be an opportunity for the “best and brightest” from diverse backgrounds to get support to pursue an innovative idea. We know that the future of mental health research will look very different from the past. BRAINS can accelerate that change by bringing a new generation into the forefront of discovery on brain and behavior.

References

1 Rockey, S. (2012, February 13). Age distribution of NIH principal investigators and medical school faculty. Blog post retrieved from http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2012/02/13/age-distribution-of-nih-principal-investigators-and-medical-school-faculty/ .