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BRAIN Initiative as Moonshot

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Dr. Francis Collins: When I became director of the NIH five years ago I knew it would be an exciting ride, I knew there would be advances happening in many different areas of this wonderful landscape that I have the chance to watch over as NIH director that represents biomedical research. I frankly did not know that we would be at this point of announcing today the first launch of a most impressive series of projects aiming at understanding how the circuits of the human brain work. We are seriously tackling an understanding of the most complicated biological structure in the known universe. Because we are announcing today this first wave of NIH investments in support of the project called BRAIN, which of course is an acronym- we are the government. BRAIN stands for brain research through advancing innovative neurotechnologies. Stephen Colbert made fun of it. He says you’re not supposed to have the word “brain” in the explanation of your acronym- BRAIN- but we’re sticking with it because we think it says what this about. And notice the title, advancing innovative neurotechnologies, most of what you will see in this remarkable awards set today of these grant awards- 58 of them- are technological advances…the development of really exciting new tools to be able to understand how these circuits work. These awards will support more than 100 investigators who are going to develop transformative technologies that will accelerate fundamental understanding of the brain…and I think you will see that they are technologically really quite challenging and inspiring and they are across many different areas and many different organisms with some of them focuses on model organisms and some on the human brain itself. They focus on classifying on the myriad of cell types in the brain…we need to know those… producing tools and techniques for analyzing brain cells and circuits, creating next generation human brain imaging technology, developing methods for large scale recordings of brain activity and integrating experiments with theories and models to understand the functions of specific brain circuits. These are all pretty challenging but among them are the development, for instance, of a wearable PET scanner for measuring brain activity during daily activities. The investigator says he would like to have a PET scanner that could access what’s happening in the brain during the proverbial walk in the park. And of course, these days, we are getting increasingly good at measuring brain activity but usually with people who are lying quite still in the midst of a major piece of equipment. The idea of making this ambulatory… and there’s a similar kind of approach being proposed for MRI. Another one uses lasers to noninvasively turn hundreds of specific cells on or off anywhere in the brain. Another is developing next generation microelectrodes that can not only measure but deliver small doses of drugs and record activity from thousands of individual neurons for months at a time. And there’s also an exciting one which allows real time movements of neurotransmitters to be observed … neurotransmitters involved in disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and depression. So, I think its fair to say since the President’s announcement a little over a year and a half ago NIH has made tremendous strides to take what is an audacious initiative and put a vision and a framework to help us achieve that. At NIH we agree that four and a half billion dollars is a realistic estimate of what will be required for this kind of a moonshot. And while that’s a large investment still keep that in context that even at its proposed peak the BRAIN Initiative each year would still only comprise approximately ten percent of what NIH is investing in neuroscience which is about which is about five and a half billion dollars each year. But make no mistake, it’s certainly important to maintain that broader neuroscience investment. The BRAIN Initiative must be an enabler and not a competitor for neuroscience funding at NIH. But it will be worth it. Some of the projects here have the ability to transform how we study the brain and new technologies and industries will likely be spawned. Possibly most importantly, the new insight we will ultimately gain from utilizing these new tools and technologies will enable researchers to develop new treatments and even cures discovered for devastating disorders and diseases of the brain and nervous system. While the BRAIN Initiative is a basic science effort to build a foundation of understanding in how the brain works, every disease research that we support will build upon this to try to understand and apply that understanding to better diagnosis and treatment. Just one example I mentioned a minute ago about the ability to track real time movements of neurotransmitters involved in disease disorders can certainly point to that pathway. So this is certainly a bold science initiative. These initial awards mark the first step in ambitious journey. So, we are taking on, with this launch, an amazing journey. We have called this a moonshot. For me as somebody who had the privilege of leading the human genome project this sort of has the same feel as October 1990 when the first genome centers were announced. We knew at that point we were going down a road that was going to be uncertain and needed a lot of technology developments and ultimately it turned out really well. I’m confident this one will as well even though none of us can quite predict the twists and turns in this exciting area of scientific research.