September 20

What’s in the “BRAIN”?


Evolution of the “BRAIN”

The Advisory Committee to the NIH Director released an interim report earlier this week on the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. This initiative, first proposed by President Obama in April 2013, and has received much attention in the media and in the scientific community. The interim report offers insight into the specifics of the implementation and desired outcomes of the overall project, while acknowledging “that these initial goals will be refined, that new goals may emerge, and that objectives and priorities are crystallizing.”

The report identifies six guiding principles and nine areas of high priority for 2014. The guiding principles are timely and appropriate, reflecting issues commonly up for debate within the neuroscience graduate community at UCSD.  Two of the guiding principles listed are: “Establish platforms for sharing data” and “Validate and disseminate knowledge.” As the debate on open access publications rages on, the need for shared access to resources and data has become increasingly evident. While most research institutions have access to major publications, the current peer-review process underlies an inherently competitive system that acts as a deterrent to open collaboration and to dissemination of information to the public. This system persists because funding success is, to a large degree, determined by publication success. The BRAIN Initiative provides funding specifically for projects that encourage collaboration, even across disciplines. Competition can also stimulate progress, but in the age of big data and costly technological projects, enabling a greater number of scientists to utilize available resources will likely speed the rate at which the field advances.

San Diego Connections to the “BRAIN”

Dr. Terry Sejnowski, a Professor at the Salk Institute, served on the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director that produced the interim report and shared the following with our group regarding his experience:  “Our committee consulted with 48 of the most innovative neuroscientists and made 9 broad recommendations to NIH to help with setting priorities and goals for developing new neurotechnologies. This is just the first step in what we hope will lead, perhaps in 10-15 years from now, to exciting insights into how brains create minds and new approaches to alleviating the burden of mental disorders.” The priority areas for 2014 identified in the report specify a need to link behavior to brain activity and to improve collection of human data from clinical and diagnostic tests. These priority areas in particular offer the greatest opportunities for immediate translational improvements in the understanding and treatment of mental disorders.

The Advisory Committee that produced this report was chosen by NIH Director Francis Collins after consultation with those in the field, according to Dr. Ralph Greenspan. Dr. Greenspan was involved in the creation of a proposal that sparked the BRAIN Initiative  and serves as Director of the newly formed Center for Brain Activity Mapping (CBAM) at UCSD. CBAM has begun hosting events on UCSD’s campus designed to bring faculty members from diverse areas of expertise together to talk and form connections. Dr. Greenspan believes that allocation of funding will be determined by experts who understand the ins and outs of what is needed to create new technologies. The goal of the BRAIN Initiative, in his words, is “to develop a full understanding of global network activity of the brain, by creating the capability to comprehensively monitor and understand brain activity in real time through successful integration of neurosciences and engineering.” Already, CBAM has been successful in sparking new ideas and culturing interdisciplinary partnerships in neuroscience labs affiliated with the UCSD graduate program.

How to use the “BRAIN”  to your advantage

Not everyone is as positive about the BRAIN Initiative as these leading scientists are.  A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble”, by Benjamin Y. Fong (a Harper fellow at U Chicago who is “at work on a manuscript of psychoanalysis and critical theory”), has concerns with the BRAIN Initiative. Fong’s predominant issue with the BRAIN Initiative, and with neuroscience in general, is that it “replaces the socially formed self with the active brain.” Fong raises as problematic the idea that mental disorders can be boiled down to biology alone, suggesting that psychosocial factors, such as low economic status, contribute to schizophrenia.

Fong draws a historical parallel to tuberculosis, claiming that the disease is not caused by bacteria, but in fact, by “unregulated industrial capitalism.” Even if an aversive social environment can be causative in the development of psychiatric disease, the need to treat and understand the disease remains. Not only that, but science can be a powerful tool to provide validation that psychosocial factors play a role in cognitive function (if not the etiology of schizophrenia per se). Recently, Science Magazine published an article demonstrating the taxing effects of even transient, seasonal, poverty on cognitive function. Many articles, including the one cited by Fong, have found associations between low socioeconomic factors and schizophrenia, but little headway has been made in establishing causation. Technologies may arise from the BRAIN Initiative with the power to mechanistically demonstrate the impact (or lack thereof) of socioeconomic and other social factors in a concrete way. The interim report highlights the need study “the mechanisms of human brain disorders, the effect of therapy, and the value of diagnostics.”  Psychoanalysis, the subject of Fong’s work, as well as other behavioral therapies, might gain mechanistic validity through the efforts of this expansive project.  Fong, and many other critics, would be better served to embrace a project which is already underway and find a way to promote their agenda within this framework, rather than attacking it from without.

The time for the “BRAIN” is now

The interim report states “This is a propitious moment for a sustained national effort unlock the secrets of the brain. The reason lies in the technological and conceptual revolution that is underway in modern neuroscience….The challenge that now faces neuroscience lies in integrating these diverse experimental approaches and scaling them up to the level of circuits and systems.” Neuroscience is enjoying what may one day be viewed as its heyday; the field isn’t going anywhere until all the questions are answered, all the diseases are cured, and maybe even the “seat of consciousness” is found. Funding from the BRAIN Initiative just might help us get there more quickly.


1. “BRAIN Initiative” April 2013.

2. “Interim Report” Advisory Commitee to the NIH Director (NIH). September 2013.

3. “UC San Diego Creates Center for Brain Activity Mapping” News Center (UCSanDiego). May 2013.

4.”Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble” Benjamin Fong (NYTimes) August 2013.

5. “Poverty Impedes Cognition” Anandi Mani et al. Science. August 2013.