International BRAIN Initiative Could Mean Cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Other Brain Diseases
In 2013, United States President Barack Obama announced the launch of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative–a new, global initiative aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain (1). The Initiative is a collaboration of researchers, governments, private sector companies, and philanthropic organizations from the United States, Germany, Japan, Argentina, and the UN Conference on Trade and Development. On September 30, Thomas Shannon, US Under Secretary of State, announced that the BRAIN Initiative was ready to begin its work. The BRAIN Initiative will primarily focus on brain mapping and increasing our understanding of the brain and its links to human behavior.
The potential benefits of the BRAIN Initiative could lead to huge advancements in our understanding of serious brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. The Office of the Secretary of State estimates that the social and economic burdens of mental illness alone will have a global cost of about 6 trillion USD by 2030 (2). According to Shannon, “Developing and deploying new technologies to improve mapping of the brain and its functions will be critical for understanding the biological underpinnings of neurological and psychiatric disorders” (2). The Initiative is also focusing on brain mapping, which could provide insight on the 100 billion neurons in the brain, create a 3-D picture of the brain, and demonstrate how “individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact” (3). According to the Kavli Foundation, which was instrumental in the development of the BRAIN Initiative, “These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior” (3).
However, some scientists who are already working on their own brain mapping technologies have concerns about how the BRAIN Initiative can streamline its research with research that is already being done. After the announcement of the Initiative, the US National Science Foundation at Rockefeller University held a separate meeting of scientists where they discussed how their respective brain mapping programs would align under the Initiative. The main concern was that “attempting to align projects could siphon money and attention from existing initiatives in other countries” (4). Furthermore, since the BRAIN Initiative is a collaboration of many countries and private sector companies, others are concerned about what the main focus of the Initiative will be. Currently, Japan is focusing on primate research, whereas the United States avoids primate research for ethical reasons. Moreover, the European Union has its own national initiative, the Human Brain Project, which is focused on the basic science of brain function. On the other hand, Canada is mainly focused on brain research with medical applications (4). In order for the BRAIN Initiative to be successful, it will need to satisfy all of its member organizations–which will be no easy task.
With the global costs and incidences of brain disease rising steadily, it is becoming increasingly important that we improve our understanding of the human brain. Scientists are hopeful that the BRAIN Initiative will be the answer. If the BRAIN Initiative can live up to its promises and successfully revolutionize our understanding of the brain, scientists are predicting that the scientific and medical benefits of the BRAIN Initiative will far surpass that of even the Human Genome Project (3).
(1) “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) – National
Institutes of Health (NIH).” U.S National Library of Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 23 Feb. 2016, https://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/?aspxautodetectcookiesupport=1.
(2) “International Brain Initiative Launch and VIP Dialog: Towards an International Brain
Station.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 20 Sept. 2016, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/09/262200.htm.
(3) “About the BRAIN Initiative.” The Kavli Foundation, The Kavli Foundation,
(4) Reardon, Sara. “Worldwide Brain-Mapping Project Sparks Excitement — and
Concern.” Nature.com, Nature Publishing Group, 21 Sept. 2016, http://www.nature.com/news/worldwide-brain-mapping-project-sparks-excitement-and-concern-1.20658.
Image: © Oliver Sved | Dreamstime.com - A group of CAT scans of the human brain