Just under a year ago, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research though Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a multi-agency project to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain. The scale of his ambition is enormous:
“There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will [do it] by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. That knowledge could be — will be — transformative.”
The spend in 2014 was $100m, and the 2015 Budget proposes to double it to $200 million. That puts it on track to overtake the EU-led Human Brain Project, which secured a $1bn grant last year.
The main agencies involved in BRAIN are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Obama wants to attract a wide range of other participants, including private companies, individual philanthropists, health systems, patient advocacy organizations, state governments, research universities, private research institutes, and scientific societies.
The NIH is the biggest funder. Its $100m will be used to develop new tools to map the circuits of the brain, record the patterns of activity within those circuits, and understand how they create our unique cognitive and behavioural capabilities. It will draw up a systematic inventory of all the different types of cells in the brain. It will work on the next generation of non-invasive imaging techniques that can be used to explore human brain in real time.
DARPA’s $80m contribution is the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) project to develop memory prostheses as part of its larger effort to identify how memories are encoded in the brain during learning and skill acquisition. The ultimate declared goal is to improve soldiers’ recovery after traumatic brain injury. Only a cynic would suggest that this sounds oddly medical for an agency tasked with helping the US Department of Defense.
The NSF’s $20m is largely intended to improve the collaboration between agencies and other organisations.
Like they say, a billion here, a billion there: pretty soon you’re talking real money!