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Human Brain Research: Major Investments Around the Globe

Economic PowersIn the last few years, there has been an increased awareness of the importance of advanced brain research, and this has been accompanied by major investments by governments around the globe. So, who are the key players, and what are their goals? We start with our own country.

In support of broader brain research, on April 2, 2013 President Obama launched the so-called “BRAIN Initiative.” It stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies.” Three government agencies are involved: The National Institutes of Health (NIH), The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and The National Science Foundation (NSF). The White House offered this description of the possible long-term outcomes of the more than one billion dollar BRAIN Initiative: “The BRAIN Initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function. It aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI).” More information can be found on the Web site braininitiative.org.

In addition, a report issued by NIH in June 2014 entitled “Brain 2025, A Scientific Vision” states: “Over recent years, neuroscience has advanced to the level that we can envision a comprehensive understanding of the brain in action, spanning molecules, cells, circuits, systems, and behaviors… The focus [of the BRAIN Initiative] is not on technology per se, but on the development and use of tools for acquiring fundamental insight about how the nervous system works in health and disease.”

But the United States is not alone in large, high priority, billion dollar efforts to understand the human brain. Also in 2013, the European Union launched a major effort, parallel to the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, called “The Human Brain Project.” The main aim of this project, as described on its Web site (humanbrainproject.eu), is to “empower brain research toward understanding the human brain and its diseases to advance brain medicine and computing technology.” Specifically, the European project is focused on helping researchers access and share collections of brain data from different species, thus allowing them to accelerate the understanding of the brain through advanced computer simulations. It is believed this will ultimately lead to the development of targeted new treatments and diagnosis for brain related diseases and trigger new approaches to brain inspired systems for AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics.

Then in 2014, Japan initiated its ten-year Brain/MINDS (Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies) Project. Its goal is to map the primate brain to accelerate understanding of human disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Although this program is much smaller than its U.S. and European counterparts, it is seen as key because it is based on a unique, genetic primate population which is a closer match to the human brain than the small animals being used in other projects. For more information see the Web site brainminds.jp/en and the October 2014 article in Nature (1)

And one cannot ignore China. The 2016 Chinese R&D five-year plan lists Brain Research as one of the nation’s top priorities, with resources to be channeled through the “China Brain Project.” Although China has lagged the US and Europe in brain research, this focus and the accompanying investment may change that. As noted in an article in Nature in 2016: “China’s neuroscience community is growing — the Chinese Neuroscience Society now has 6,000 members, compared to just 1,500 ten years ago; the country has tens of millions of patients with psychiatric or degenerative brain disease that will facilitate clinical studies; and it has hundreds of thousands of research monkeys. This last factor has already allowed Chinese researchers to take the lead in using gene-editing technologies to produce models of autism and other conditions.” (2)

So, the foundations have been laid, but many things have changed on the world stage since 2013. As far as the US is concerned, the level of government support for science research is a growing issue. If budgets are tight, what should the priority of brain research be? What are the recent results from these initiatives/projects? Does it matter whether the US has a leadership position? These are some of the questions we will address in future posts.


 

  1. David Cyranoski, “Marmosets are stars of Japan’s ambitious brain project: Ten-year brain-mapping effort will use monkeys to study human neural and mental disorders,” Nature, October 8, 2014, https://www.nature.com/news/marmosets-are-stars-of-japan-s-ambitious-brain-project-1.16091
  2. David Cyranoski, “What China’s latest five-year plan means for science: Oceanography, brain science and stem cells among research fields that look set to grow,” Nature, March 18, 2016, https://www.nature.com/news/what-china-s-latest-five-year-plan-means-for-science-1.19590#/brain

 

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