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Obama's Much-Hailed BRAIN Initiative Could Stall Due to Lack of Funds

Neuro experts say the $100 million allotted by the Obama administration for the BRAIN project won't be enough to make a significant dent in research.

By Reina V. Slutske

President Barack Obama has requested that Congress approve an additional $100 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget for his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, initiative. However, scientists and medical device companies specializing in neuroscience aren’t certain that it’s enough funding to actually do the work.

Inspired by the success of the human genome project, which returned $140 for every dollar invested in it, the president sees the initiative as being instrumental in bringing new products to market and helping in finding answers to neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation,” Obama said in a statement. “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”

The BRAIN Initiative seeks to create a map of the human brain and is being referred to as the 21st century’s answer to putting a man on the moon. The intention is to transform the way the brain is viewed and to allow private sector, research divisions, and the government to partner in bringing new developments to the market.

Researchers and corporations are recognizing the importance of the study and praising the president for the initiative, but are concerned that the amount of money is minimal for the intentions. Arthur W. Toga, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that if the comparison is to the Space Race, the investment is barely scratching the surface.

“The EU just initiated a project called the human brain project, and that’s funded at 2.2 billion Euros,” he says. “We didn’t go to the moon for $100 million.”

Michael Singer, CEO and president of Brainscope, says the brain is the last frontier in terms of medical study and is incredibly complex. He believes it will become apparent very quickly that the $100 million is not enough, which will provide an eye opener to policymakers.

“The amount of investment needs to be much higher if they want to have impact,” he says.

Some of the money, Toga said, could come from private companies willing to put up some of their capital in order to further projects with academic institutions, as they have done in the past.

There are also other questions that face the initiative, according to Toga, such as exactly how are they plan to fund it and how entities will compete for the money to explore their ideas. The National Institute of Health (NIH), which is partnering with the Obama administration for the project, either responds to applications or makes calls for specific types of applications that it would like to fund. Toga believes the BRAIN initiative will be in the latter category.

Both Singer and Toga feel that the opportunities that the president and NIH are setting up for collaboration for R&D are extremely important. Toga refers to the BRAIN initiative as “one of the most exciting times in neuroscience,” and the partnerships will allow the project to thrive.

Toga, who has spent most of his life studying the human brain, hopes to be involved in the initiative. He feels that other entities that choose to get involved in the project should view people like him as resources.

“You don’t want to start with a blank slate,” he says.

Brainscope, which specializes in studying traumatic brain injury who has previously worked with the United States military and Department of Defense, will not be getting involved due to time constraints, although Singer remains supportive.

Toga points out that, like the Space Race, the benefits of BRAIN are not just the actual map, but also the technology that will be developed to get there.

“There are all kinds of products and devices that emerged out of [the Space Race] that are available to you and I as private citizens,” he says. Some of those spinoff technologies include ear thermometers and memory foam.

Both Toga and Singer feel that the direct and indirect benefits of the BRAIN Initiative, whether economically for the medical sector or in terms of innovation, are more important than ever.

“The developments that are made in neuroscience have a direct benefit to everyone in the world,” Toga says. “We’re not all going to stand on the moon, but we all have a brain.”

Reina V. Slutske is the assistant editor for MD+DI.

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