The first projects to receive funding under the Obama administration’s brain research initiative include the creation of a wearable scanner to image the brain in motion and the development of tools such as radio waves, nanoparticles and genetically modified viruses to remotely target activity deep in the brain.
The National Institutes of Health on Tuesday announced grants totalling $46 million to 58 projects. It hopes to spend $4.5 billion over 12 years to fast-track technologies to help scientists study not only individual neurons and localized brain activity, but also “to meet in the middle where brain function emerges,” said Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University.
The Obama administration established the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative 18 months ago. “This initial round is a first step in a long journey,” NIH Director Francis Collins said at a National Press Club event announcing the grants.
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, noted that we know less about the brain today than we did about the genome two decades ago. “In relation to the heart and the kidney, we don’t even have a parts list to the brain,” he said.
The Obama administration wants to double the federal commitment to the BRAIN initiative next year with $200 million in projected funds. That amount is considerably less than the $1.5 billion Europe is spending for the Human Brain Project and well behind China’s Brainnetome initiative, which was launched 10 years ago.
“This can’t be business as usual,” Bargmann said. “We’re putting a big emphasis on showing new results and discoveries.”
Among the domestic and foreign institutions receiving the NIH grants are Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Zurich, and Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.
John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said support for the BRAIN initiative will come from public companies and private research foundations, including Google, General Electric and the Children’s Neurobiological Solutions Foundation. They are “aligning more than $300 million to be added to the president’s initiative,” he said. The Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Kavli Foundation have already pledged nearly $120 million toward the initiative.
As part of doing more with less, Bargmann, Collins and Insel emphasized the need for a multidisciplinary approach to meeting the initiative’s goals. Some of the scientists NIH is funding, they said, are just beginning their careers and others have been doing research for a long time.
“The first goal of the BRAIN initiative is to stimulate technology,” Bargmann said. “I’m most excited about studying the deepest parts of the brain, which has effectively been terra incognita. . . . We’re like Galileo looking at the sky with a telescope. We’re looking at the brain with new tools.”