Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

President Obama’s Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative


Nature News Feature, 07 November 2013

Neurotechnology: BRAIN storm


In April 2013, US President Barack Obama unveiled the neuroscience equivalent of a Moon shot: a far-reaching programme that could rival Europe's 10-year, €1-billion (US$1.3-billion) Human Brain Project. The US Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative would develop a host of tools to study brain activity and lead to huge breakthroughs in understanding the mind.

At their first opportunity — a workshop convened on 6 May by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Kavli Foundation of Oxnard, California — researchers from across the neuroscience spectrum swarmed to fill in the blanks and advocate for their favourite causes.

The government was taking a different tack and said simply that new tools were needed to help neuroscientists develop better pictures of brain circuits in action — and that such technologies could pave the way to treatments for neurological disorders such as epilepsy, autism, Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia

The details would be left up to three government agencies: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which would contribute $50 million in the first year; the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would pitch in $40 million; and the NSF, which would add $20 million. The initiative would be further supported by four private institutions, which had committed to a total of $122 million over varying lengths of time

Members of the NIH's BRAIN Initiative advisory committee, a 15-member panel dubbed the 'dream team', is co-chaired by neuroscientists Cornelia Bargmann at the Rockefeller University in New York City and William Newsome of Stanford University in California. The panel's first task was to prepare an interim report outlining the NIH's science goals for the project's first year. Then, once that report had been delivered to the NIH in September, the team would start to develop a long-term implementation plan, due in June 2014.

The NIH team started on its first order of business: convening a series of four workshops to gather input from the neuroscience community. These covered molecular techniques; large-scale recording technologies; computational and theoretical neuroscience; and human brain studies.

The deputy director of DARPA's defence science office said that his agency would not be releasing any road maps for its BRAIN Initiative efforts. The NSF's lead on the project said that the agency intended to wait for the NIH report before issuing its own plan, to avoid duplication.

The initiative's private partners will mostly stick with existing programmes. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, were all eager to frame the BRAIN Initiative as a continuation of research they already had under way.

The committee starts work on the long-term report it must deliver next June. The team will need to rank research priorities as short-, medium- and long-term goals, set timelines, estimate costs and define specific deliverable outcomes for the next few years.

The NIH advisory committee hopes to draw on the creativity of the wider neuroscience community at the upcoming annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience. Armed with only a slightly more defined vision than they had six months ago, they will continue to try to define what the BRAIN Initiative can and should mean for the future.

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