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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: The Pay-Offs of ARRA

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In February 2009, a recently inaugurated President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to invest $787 billion to create jobs, spur the economy, and foster transparency in government spending. About $10 billion of these funds were allocated to NIH for spending in 2009 and 2010. After several years of budgets not keeping up with inflation, NIH welcomed these funds as a chance for the biomedical research community to be part of the ARRA mission.

What did the nation get for this $10 billion investment? Beyond more grants, more jobs, and more investment in science, was there something special from the surge in funding? Before answering these questions, a shout-out to a new part of the NIH website. Check out, which has data about the economic importance of NIH funding. Two examples: NIH funding supports an estimated 432,000 jobs across the country and every $1 in NIH funding generates $2.21 in local economic growth. We often forget that NIH funding is an investment, not a cost.

But the greatest value of NIH research is its impact on discovery and health. One year following the end of research funding coming out of the $366 million in ARRA funds allocated to NIMH we can already see the results. ARRA funds (roughly $120 million from across NIH) were used to support autism research, responding to the marked increase in prevalence and an autism strategic plan developed with the autism community. ARRA funds supported some of the first whole genome sequencing in autism, as well as therapeutic trials, new models of job training, and services research. One result of this research: we now realize that “genetic” does not mean “inherited” – many of the mutations discovered in children with autism are rare de novo events not found in their parents.

ARRA funds supported the first map of gene expression in the developing human brain.i Amazingly, 80 percent of the genes expressed in the brain showed a pattern of expression during fetal life different from that seen postnatally; many genes were spliced in novel ways during fetal development, producing protein variants unique to that stage. Some of the genetic signals associated with mental disorders, which previously were difficult to understand, appear in those regions that are relevant in fetal brain development but perhaps not thereafter. At a molecular level, the fetal brain appears to be profoundly different from the postnatal brain.

Last week we heard the results of an ARRA-funded study of 100,000 members of Kaiser Permanente of Northern California who had been genotyped and followed for changes in telomere length as a sign of stress and aging. This week we heard the results of another major ARRA project, the Neurodevelopmental Genomics project, which began with 10,000 children who would be genotyped and characterized for their cognitive abilities, with 1,000 undergoing comprehensive neuroimaging for brain development.ii This study, still being analyzed, has already provided the first detailed reference map of cognitive development. Data presented this week revealed the complex pattern of healthy brain development across adolescence, with marked gender differences. NIMH has stressed that mental disorders are neurodevelopmental with behavioral changes such as psychosis and depression representing late events in the timeline of these illnesses. This project is giving us a picture of the range of development in both brain and behavior with which we can map expected trajectories, similar to growth charts for height and weight. The study is a landmark in developmental neuropsychology, providing the first broad bridge between brain development and behavioral development for ages 8 to 21. And, of course, it fulfilled the ARRA recovery mission by creating over 100 jobs.

At a time when there is intense debate over budget deficits and government spending, it is worth reiterating that research funding is an investment not a cost. Other countries are increasing their investments in biomedical research, recognizing the economic as well as societal benefits that come from scientific discovery.iii If these early results of the ARRA experiment are any indication, imagine what we could do in the future.


 iKang, H.J,, et al. Spatio-temporal transcriptome of the human brain. Nature. 2011 Oct 26;478(7370):483-9. doi: 10.1038/nature10523.

 ii Gur, R.C., et al. Age group and sex differences in performance on a computerized neurocognitive battery in children age 8-21. Neuropsychology. 2012 Mar;26(2):251-65. Epub 2012 Jan 16.

 iii Atkinson, R.D., et al. Leadership in Decline. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and United for Medical Research, Washington, DC, 2012.