DABI: 20th Anniversary

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

November 22, 2013


“After Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, someone had to sell them.” With those words, David Mahoney introduced himself to the neuroscience community at a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor in November, 1992. The meeting, organized by Max Cowan and Jim Watson, was to kick-start attention to brain research. This was shortly after the formal “Decade of the Brain” initiated by President George H.W. Bush. At the time, many of us recognized that not much was being accomplished except meetings in which scientists talked to each other. This 30-member meeting was to evaluate what else could be done.

At that Cold Spring Harbor meeting, David announced that the Dana Foundation would commit to supporting and promoting brain research. Shortly thereafter, the Dana initiative became known as Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI). This is now the 20th anniversary of its existence. Before going on to what has been accomplished, I would like to say a few more words about the initial stages.

David sat quietly for the first day or so of the meeting before finally saying, “You guys are on the wrong track. What’s needed is a list of achievable goals with which the public can identify.” Somewhat grudgingly the meeting broke up into small groups and came up with the list, which included goals such as identifying the genes that are defective in Alzheimer’s and developing effective treatments for anxiety disorders. I say grudgingly because there was an undercurrent of suspicion of David, this outsider telling neuroscientists how to behave. Little did we know the force with which we were dealing.

Besides setting up this list of goals, David emphasized several other areas in which scientists could do better: They should get out of their labs and clinics and talk to the public. They should talk to their congressmen and explain why brain research is important. And they should be available to local schools to demonstrate and educate about brain research. One of the first avenues developed to make this possible was Brain Awareness Week.

Started in 1996, the aim of Brain Awareness Week was to focus for one week on the brain, its problems, its impact on the public, and advances in brain research. The inclusion was for all interested in brain research, including universities, laboratories, public sector groups, and disease-oriented organizations. In its second year there were 160 participating institutions carrying out 227 events, all in the U.S. Today, more than 4,100 institutions in 99 countries have participated in the campaign. Last year alone there were 956 events in 42 states and 58 countries. Part of that success was due to the development of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB), formed in 1997 and modeled after DABI. In Europe, one of the successes of EDAB was to educate people about the necessity for animal research. This was particularly important in Switzerland and Germany where there were national referenda on this subject.

Much has been accomplished during the past 20 years but DABI continually explores what we can do better and what additional or new directions we can take. Here are some thoughts as we look toward the future:

Educating the public: This is an area where we have done well, but there are still challenges. One is the existing stigma associated with diseases of the brain, particularly mental illness. Prominent people have had significant depression. Getting them to speak about their experiences is most helpful in bringing depression out of the closet.

In the past we have primarily used print media to reach the public. There is opportunity for expanded use of social media, particularly to reach younger participants. It is difficult to get education about the brain into crowded school curricula. However, after-school clubs and other activities lend themselves to social media as a source of information and interchange.

Interaction with legislatures: This is a tough time to get the attention of legislatures, particularly if spending money is involved. Perhaps working at the local level, making a representative aware of the results of research he or she has supported and what the impacts have been on his or her constituents, will be more fruitful than the traditional visit to a Washington office.

Neuroscience research funding: We have become enormously dependent on a single source of funding: government sources, particularly the NIH. So much so that other sources, notably private philanthropies, have stepped aside, not seeing a role in the face of government largesse. It is important to attract this source of funding back.

Relationships with the pharmaceutical industry: This is an important relationship; we both need each other. After all, the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t have patients, and academia doesn’t have the resources or ability to develop a product beyond the initial phases. The current system is a bit of a mess. From the time of initial discovery to the final acceptance of a therapeutic product is up to 12 years, at a cost of $1 billion or more. Evaluation of a product or procedure in a more homogenous population, such as those described by genetic markers in breast cancer, may help to answer the primary question about a new product: “Does the damn stuff do anything?”

DABI was started 20 years ago in a very different climate than exists now. It has been very successful, but there is work left to be done. Hopefully the next 20 years will be equally prosperous.