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NIH awards $46 million for brain-research tools

Just 18 months after the White House announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, the US National Institutes of Health has awarded its first US$46 million in grants for the programme.

“We have referred to this as a moonshot,” said NIH director Francis Collins at a 30 September press conference. “To me, as someone who had the privilege of leading the Human Genome Project, this sort of has the same feel as October 1990, when the first genome centres were announced.”

The 58 NIH grants, which range in size from about $300,000 to $1.9 million, will support more than 100 researchers. According to Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the NIH received more than 300 grant applications, and ended up spending $6 million more than it had anticipated in order to fund as many of these grants as possible.

The awards address research priorities included in the NIH’s 10-year plan for the BRAIN Initiative; most will support the development of new tools to monitor the brain, such as a wearable positron emission tomography (PET) scanner that could monitor a person’s brain activity as she goes about her day. Some of these tools could eventually be used for studying and treating human disorders, including grants for imaging neurotransmitters such as dopamine in real time in a living brain, which Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says will be extremely useful for studying disorders such as depression. Other tools will be useful primarily for basic research, including many potential improvements on optogenetics – using light to control neuronal firing in animals.

“It’s a new era of exploration, an exploration of inner space instead of outer space,” says Cornelia Bargmann, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York . “We feel a little like Galileo looking at the sky through his telescope for the first time.”

The NIH’s master plan calls for $4.5 billion for BRAIN Initiative research over the next 10 years, a goal that will require support from Congress to increase the agency’s overall budget. To allay concerns that BRAIN initiative will detract from other NIH-funded research, Collins noted that the BRAIN funding request is dwarfed by the $5.5 billion the agency spends on neuroscience research annually.

The NIH is the last of the three agencies involved in BRAIN to announce its awards. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, which received $50 million this year, has announced several multimillion dollar grants for therapeutic applications such as brain stimulation to improve memory and prosthetic limbs controlled by brain activity. The National Science Foundation received $30 million and, in August, announced 36 small awards for basic research in topics such as brain evolution and ways to store data collected from brains.

Meanwhile, two additional federal agencies — the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) — are set to join the effort, the White House announced on 30 September.

The FDA will be working with the other agencies to enable the development of medical and research devices that could be used in humans. IARPA will be joining BRAIN with several of its own ongoing research programmes, including an effort to develop new artificial intelligence systems based on the brain’s network patterns and a study on the use of brain stimulation to increase human problem-solving ability. According to the White House, the total investment in BRAIN Initiative research this year by government and private funding sources, such as the Kavli Foundation, totals more than $300 million.

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