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Moving Forward with the Federal BRAIN Initiative

Perhaps no area of study today is more fascinating than neuroscience. As researchers delve into the mysteries of the brain, many assumptions are shattered about how and why people act the way they do. At the same time, new knowledge regarding how the brain works is the crucial variable needed to ultimately discover new treatment methods for brain injuries, from TBIs to degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

On that front, several news outlets reported last week on the release of a new report from the National Institute of Health (NIH) on the future of neuroscience. The report (view it online here) is worth reading in depth for all of those who want a thorough understanding of what is known and unknown about the body’s most complex organ.

Fulfilling the BRAIN Initiative
The completion of the report by the NIH was just the first part of a high profile federal project known at the BRAIN Initiative. Pushed by President Obama, the project is perhaps the largest effort ever to expand neuroscience knowledge in order to help those suffering from various ailments. As quoted in a New Yorker article of the subject, the BRAIN initiative’s goal is to “revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.”

The Report
The details in the NIH report are too numerous to outline entirely here. Yet, one common theme echoing throughout the pages is the immense challenge presented by the brain. The organ is mystifyingly complex, meaning that gains in knowledge must come incrementally. To put the challenge into perspective, the New Yorker article points out that scientists have yet to fully understand how a simple worm brain functions, which has 302 neurons. The human brain has 86 billion neurons. In short, we have a long way to go.

The report authors–a team of 15 experts from across the country–explain that true progress will only come with focused effort on several different aspects of the brain, from understanding physical connections between the organ to figuring out ways to read the dynamic activity as the brain as it experiences the world.

The Road Forward
The BRAIN Initiative as a whole is an ambitious project that could end up being akin to the country’s investment in NASA in the 1960s to reach the moon. Yet, right now, the project is only a proposal. The NIH study outlining the future may or may not result in implementation of a real research agenda. Considering the near constant deadlock in Congress, if anything requires political authorization, it may face an uphill battle.

Fortunately, the BRAIN Initiative is not the only game in town. Private projects, most notably the Allen Institute for Brain Science (AIBS) is working on similar territory. This program was founded by computer pioneer Paul Allen and is pursuing over $500 million in projects.

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