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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) BRAIN Initiative is requesting $4.5 billion for its efforts to develop the technology that will allow brain scientists to map out the neural circuitry of the brain. BRAIN, in the title of this initiative, stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.
The NIH Brain Initiative was launched by the White House in April of 2013 and the purpose of this program is to accelerate the development of innovative technologies which will allow scientists to identify how neurons and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. The hope of the initiative is to be able to explain how the human brain records, processes, utilizes, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information. The NIH BRAIN Initiative was likened to the Human Genome Project, which was launched under controversy but is now considered to be a great success.
The recent report by the BRAIN Working Group calls for $4.5 billion to support the BRAIN Initiative for the next 12 years. Some of the goals of the BRAIN Initiative are to identify and access brain cells, generate circuit diagrams from the level of synapses to the level of the whole brain, develop methods for large-scale monitoring of neural activity, and link neuronal activity to behavior.
The NIH is joined in the BRAIN Initiative by the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is a division of the United States DoD. Private funding is also being used to support the program.
A similar project is currently underway in Europe. The Human Brain Project, sponsored by the European Union, has been allocated more than a billion euros which will be spent over the next 10 years.
This request to support the NIH Brain Initiative, at a level of $4.5 billion to develop technology, was justified in the report with the hope that results from this effort will aid in understanding and curing psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases. The theory is that knowing the wiring diagram of the brain will give insight into the neural basis for sensory functions, like vision and hearing, as well as thought itself and memory and emotion.
Optogenetics, a method which uses light to activate or inactivate cells or areas of the brain, is a type of methodology the BRAIN Initiative would like to expand. Optogenetics could potentially be used to manipulate memories and behaviors.
This is not the first time the U.S. government has initiated an extremely large effort to study the brain. The 1990s was declared the Decade of the Brain by President George Bush. The interest in developing research on the brain in the 1990s was largely instigated by the recent developments in imaging techniques, such as MRIs and CAT scans.
The request for $4.5 billion to fund the NIH BRAIN Initiative to develop technologies to study the brain received enthusiastic support from the current director of NIH, Dr. Francis Collins. Dr. Collins said the effort would not be easy, but it will be a pretty exciting ride.
By Margaret Lutze