When President Obama announced his plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain seven months ago, it was long on ambition and short on details.
Now some of the details are being sketched in.
The BRAIN Initiative will include efforts to restore lost memories in war veterans, create tools that let scientists study individual brain circuits and map the nervous system of the fruit fly.
The Defense Advanced Projects Agency, or DARPA, which has committed more than $50 million to the effort, offered the clearest plan. The agency wants to focus on treatments for the sort of brain disorders affecting soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Dr. Geoffrey Ling, deputy director of DARPA. “That is our constituency,” Ling said at a news conference at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.
So DARPA will be working on problems including PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, Ling says. In particular, the agency wants to help the soldier who has “a terribly damaged brain and has lost a significant amount of declarative memory,” Ling said. “We would like to restore that memory.”
DARPA hopes to do that with an implanted device that will take over some functions of the brain’s hippocampus, an area that’s important to memory. The agency has already used a device that does this in rodents, Ling said, and the goal is to move on to people quickly.
The agency plans to use the same approach that created a better prosthetic arm in record time, Ling said. “We went from idea to prototype in 18 months,” he says.
The National Institutes of Health plans to invest $40 million in the BRAIN Initiative over the next year. One major goal is to create new tools that will allow scientists to see how specific brain circuits function, according to Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
“We believe that the tools and technologies that will come from this initiative will actually enable all brain scientists to do their work better, faster and with more impact,” Landis said at the news conference.
That could lead to better treatments for people with brain a disease such as Parkinson’s, Landis says. For several years now, people with Parkinson’s have been able to reduce their tremors with a treatment known as deep brain stimulation.
“While it works, it’s incredibly crude,” Landis said. “Imagine if we knew exactly how that circuitry worked. You could design a much better way to do deep brain stimulation.”
But Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said it’s important to remember that the immediate goal of the BRAIN Initiative isn’t developing treatments, but understanding the inner workings of the most complex system in the universe.
Much of the early work will involve animals, not people, Insel said. And some of it will be done not by the NIH, but by private research organizations that have agreed to take on some major portions of the BRAIN initiative.
For example, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, based in Maryland, is working to map the entire nervous system of a fruit fly. And the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle is studying how a mouse brain processes visual information.
Even though this sort of research is not aimed at curing Alzheimer’s or epilepsy, Insel said, it should be of great interest to the public. “They’re interested in the brain as a way to understand who we are, what makes us different and what is special about the human brain.”
The president has asked for an extra $100 million in federal money to help fund the BRAIN Initiative in the next year. But scientists say the effort will accomplish a lot even if that money doesn’t materialize.