Behind the BRAIN Initiative

By Caleb O’Brien

Erik Parens, senior research scholar at The Hastings Center, spoke on the promise and potential pitfalls of the BRAIN Initiative.

Erik Parens, senior research scholar at The Hastings Center, spoke on the promise and potential pitfalls of the BRAIN Initiative.

DENVER – The Obama Administration’s initiative 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,” may be less substantial and less likely to produce breakthrough cures than the Administration has suggested.

Speaking at the 2014 Health Journalism Conference in Denver, a panel of physicians, doctors and scholars welcomed the BRAIN Initiative while criticizing its scope and true potential. Short for “Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies,” the BRAIN Initiative was announced by the White House in April 2013.

The initiative has a budget of about $100 million for 2014, with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. However, Kenneth Tyler, chairman of the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Neurology, said much of the NSF funding came from existing funds for research already aligned with BRAIN Initiative goals.

Additional areas of research are restoring memory, creating prosthetic hands that can a user can feel and sense, as well as other emerging therapies, Tyler said.

John Sladek, professor of neurology, pediatrics and neuroscience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine highlighted parallels between the BRAIN Initiative and earlier efforts to unlock the secrets of the nervous system. What distinguishes the BRAIN Initiative from other programs is its emphasis on neural circuits and how they interact, Sladek said.

However, in his proclamation declaring the ’90s to be the “Decade of the Brain,” President Bush used language similar to the that used by Obama when rolling out the BRAIN Initiative: Bush referred to the human brain as a “3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells” and citing the need for research into “Alzheimer’s … stroke, schizophrenia, autism, and impediments of speech, language, and hearing.”

Although the “Decade of the Brain” has produced advances in our understanding of the nervous system and its disorders, Sladek said advances in treatment have not kept pace. Although scientists understand more about Huntington’s disease, for example, the treatment for the disease has not changed significantly. Increased funding and support for research is always welcome, but one should not expect that it will necessarily produce cures, Sladek said.

Sladek also voiced support for what he called “small science.” He said individuals or small groups of researchers looking at an issue askance may reach an insight overlooked by the large, streamlined undertakings of “big science.” For example, conventional wisdom once held that neurons in mature animals could not regenerate; it was the persistence of a single dissenting scientist who eventually transformed our understanding of neurogeneration.

songbirdneuron copy 2

This image of neurons in a living songbird was taken during a critical juncture in song learning. Image by Todd Roberts, Duke University Medical Center

Erik Parens, senior research scholar with The Hastings Center criticized the initiative for focusing too much on investing in technological advances and hoping breakthroughs and better treatment would result. He compared the initiative to drunk man searching for his keys under a streetlamp: a police officer walks up and helps the man look for his keys. Eventually, the officer asks the man if he is certain he lost his keys under that particular lamp, to which the drunk man responds, “No, I lost them in the park, but the light is so much better here!”

A broader focus on the practical world of medicine and society — rather than huddling below the streetlamps of recent advances in imaging technology — would be beneficial, Parens said. As an example of the kind of research he would like to see funded, Parens spoke of neuroimaging research examining the impact of social status and stress on the brain.

The public would be better served by a broader allocation of resources, Parens said, because an inordinate focus on technological advances could inadvertently promote a reductionist understanding of the mind. It is important to remember that we are more than the cells and molecules of which we are composed, he said.

The BRAIN Initiative has been compared to the Human Genome Project, the massive, decades-long mission to sequence human DNA. Unraveling the secrets of the brain is also enormously important, but it may be a far messier task than decoding the human genome. For Sladek, Parens and Tyler, the BRAIN Initiative is an important step towards understanding ourselves and our brains despite what they perceive as the program’s flaws.


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