Get to Know Your BRAIN

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

March 30, 2014

In April 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative, a project encouraging Brain Research through Advances in Innovative Neurotechnologies. When the President's announcement first appeared, many neuroscientists were caught by surprise. "Where did that come from?" we wondered. Now, one year later, things are a little clearer, as outlined in the article "Brain Shot" by Laura Sanders (page 2).

My original reaction was that this proposal was focusing on finer and finer morphological techniques, looking at the brain in submicroscopic ways, utilizing techniques that did not yet exist. It wasn't clear what questions were being asked. I was reassured when the NIH put together a panel of first-rate neuroscientists, who represented various approaches to the problem and developed a list of priorities for the Initiative.

As Laura Saunders points out, there are still uncertainties. First, the project is underfunded, even though the funding comes from three sources: the NIH; a research arm of the military (DARPA); and the National Science Foundation. Each has its own priorities and strengths, but are not noted for working together. Second, it is not clear who is running this program. Who is going to be its champion when further, increased funding is needed from Congress? Who is going to keep this program bipartisan? Although instigated by the Obama administration, this is a long-term program that will need the backing and funding from future administrations and congresses. Finally, this program needs to be presented to the general public in terms they understand.

Is this a worthwhile program? Yes. Has progress been made? Yes, if only to define the goals. Is the neuroscience community on board? Barely. However, attempts are planned to present, and discuss, the program at appropriate meetings. The disease-oriented groups are cautious. Will this program take research money away from their goals? Is the general public on board? What's in it for us?

This reminds me of the "Decade of the Brain," a program that existed from 1990 to 1999 and was designed to increase public awareness of the importance of brain research. In retrospect, I don't think much was accomplished. There were a lot of meetings in which neuroscientists spoke to the choir-fellow neuroscientists. The effect on the general public and their appreciation of brain science was minimal. In 1992, Jim Watson, Max Cowan, and David Mahoney, at a memorable meeting at Cold Spring Harbor, righted things, utilizing David's genius for marketing. If the BRAIN Initiative is to succeed, at some point it needs to add a marketing arm. That sounds like an anathema to most neuroscientists, but this program is going to need big bucks and big attention.