In April 2013, the White House launched an ambitious initiative focused on better understanding the workings of the human brain. Over the next 10 years, the goal of this project, designated the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, is to figure out specifically how the brain works. Since President Barack Obama's announcement of the initiative, brilliant minds from various scientific and technological backgrounds have banded together to work on BRAIN, including employees from Google and GE, according to Livescience. With BRAIN, scientists and policymakers are hoping to find solutions to some of the brain's most complex workings, which in theory could lead to advances in medicine, understanding of mental health disorders and new forms of Alzheimer's treatment.
Founding members of the BRAIN Initiative include the National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation. These organizations set out to gain a better understanding of how the brain works and what causes diseases. In an interview with AARP, Francis Collins, director of the NIH, explains:
"You could say that we currently have a low-resolution picture of how the brain functions. We can look at individual brain cells to see what they're doing, but that doesn't tell us about the circuits and networks in the brain, and how they work. The goal of the BRAIN initiative is to better understand the way the brain processes information and how it lays down memories and retrieves them. Being able to do this will provide the foundation for our understanding of brain health, and ultimately, how to prevent disease."
"With BRAIN, scientists and policymakers are hoping to find solutions to some of the brain's most complex workings, which in theory could lead to advances in Alzheimer's treatment."
The National Science Foundation lists five thematic areas the initiative covers: neurotechnology and research infrastructure, brain-inspired innovations and quantitative theory and modeling of brain function, multi-scale integration of the dynamic activity and structure of the brain and BRAIN workforce development. Each of these areas encompasses different goals of the BRAIN Initiative, including being able to better interpret cognitive functions in real time, develop tools to accurately record brain function and conceptualize innovative technologies that can benefit society. The White House suggests that the BRAIN Initiative could be to neuroscience what the Human Genome Project has been for genomics. Overall, it appears the goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to accelerate advancements in technology in order to benefit the millions of people around the world experiencing a mental health disorder or disease.
Collaboration is at the center of this project. With contributions from multiple private corporations, government organizations, renowned universities and scientists from many fields, the BRAIN Initiative is certainly drawing on robust resources. Together, these institutions will be able to take a more comprehensive approach to learning how the brain functions.
How the BRAIN Initiative will change care
The NSF states that this initiative could potentially unlock integrated methods for better understanding how brain function correlates to physical and social factors. Hypothetically, the BRAIN Initiative will allow scientists to not only map out the brain's workings, but also to identify specific causes of mental diseases. Therefore, these diseases, such as Alzheimer's and dementia, could be potentially identified earlier and personalized therapy options would be available as a means of prevention and treatment. Though there have already been significant advancements in brain research over the past decade, the BRAIN Initiative and similar projects will be necessary to innovate new treatments for mental health disorders. To do this, we must not only understand the construction of the brain, but also its intimate processes, molecular idiosyncrasies and real-time activity. Overall, this research is particularly important for those affected by Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.