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NIH nearly doubles investment in BRAIN Initiative research

October 13, 2016

The National Institutes of Health announced its third round of grants to support the goals of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, bringing NIH's total fiscal year 2016 investment to just over $150 million.

"In only three years we've already seen exciting new advances in neuroscience research come out of the BRAIN Initiative," said Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., director of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Over one hundred new awards, totaling more than $70 million, will go to over 170 investigators working at 60 institutions. These awards expand NIH's efforts to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action. Projects include proposals to develop computer programs that may help researchers detect and diagnose autism and Alzheimer's disease from brain scans, build a cap that uses ultrasound waves to precisely stimulate brain cells, create a "neural dust" system made of tiny electric sensors for wirelessly recording brain activity, improve current rehabilitation technologies for helping the lives of stroke patients, and study how the brain reads and speaks.

"This year, more projects will be based, at least in part, on data from humans," added Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health. "Some of these projects are aimed at fine-tuning brain stimulation and other promising technologies for the treatment of mental illnesses."

In 2013, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative as a large-scale effort to equip researchers with insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders like Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. The World Health Organization estimates that devastating brain disorders affect more than one billion people worldwide.

"There are very few effective cures for neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders," said Dr. Koroshetz. "By pushing the boundaries of fundamental neuroscience research, NIH BRAIN Initiative scientists are providing the insights researchers will need to develop 21st century treatments."

The NIH component of the BRAIN Initiative is guided by the long-term scientific plan, BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision, which emphasized an early investment in basic neuroscience research. Over the past two years, NIH BRAIN Initiative funded researchers have produced several breakthroughs and published over 125 academic research articles.

On October 13, President Obama will speak about his administration's eight years of scientific achievements at the White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, hosted by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

To date, NIH BRAIN Initiative breakthroughs include:

The blueprint for a brain scanning helmet Current brain imaging machines require people to lie still for long periods of time while being scanned, an uncomfortable state. BRAIN Initiative researchers at the West Virginia University and University of Virginia addressed this problem by developing a plan for making a wearable positron emission tomography scanner. This would allow doctors to watch the activity of a person's brain during a more natural state, such as walking through a park.

Mapped a see-through fish brain in action Led by scientists at Harvard University, BRAIN Initiative researchers mapped the activity of hundreds of tiny see-through zebrafish brains while the fish were hunting prey or reacting to light flashes, electric shocks, noxious chemicals or vibrations. Scientists can obtain an atlas of these maps called Z-brain for free. The maps and the techniques used to make them may one day help scientists chart the activity of a human brain.

Designer drugs for turning neurons on or off Led by scientists at the University of Chapel Hill North Carolina and at the NIH's National Institute of Drug Abuse, BRAIN Initiative researchers updated a tool kit called DREADD (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs) which helps researchers control the firing of neurons with designer drugs. Experiments in mice showed that they could use the drugs to precisely turn neurons on or off and control how much mice ate or walked.

Stem cell genetics, Zika and human evolution BRAIN Initiative researchers at the University of California, San Francisco developed an assembly line system to rapidly analyze the genes of thousands of newborn brain cells. Using this approach they discovered clues as to how the Zika virus may infect neurons and how the human brain may have grown through evolution.

Sequencing the genes of thousands of brains cells in one shot Led by scientists at Harvard University, researchers developed a method, called Drop-seq, for simultaneously sequencing the genes of tens of thousands of neurons in one experiment. Experiments in mice showed they could classify thousands of neurons in the retina, the eye tissue which turns light into the nerve signs we use to see. This technology may one day allow scientists to create a library of every cell in the human brain.

Please visit http://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/funding/fundedAwards.htm for lists of new grants in each of the following categories:
  • Tools for Cells and Circuits: NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will devise new tools and methods for rapidly identifying cells and genes that control certain brain circuits, including using ultrasound waves to turn circuits on and off.

  • Large Scale Recording and Modulation - New Technologies: NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will explore creative ways to monitor and manipulate brain activity, including creating large scale flexible probes for recording activity deep inside a brain.

  • Large Scale Recording and Modulation - Optimization: These grants will help NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers enhance current methods of monitoring and manipulating brain activity, including using the gene that lights up plankton to make neurons fire.

  • Large Scale Recording and Modulation - New Concepts and Early Stage Research: NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will devise novel ways to monitor and manipulate brain activity, including creating a "neural dust" system made of tiny electric sensors for wirelessly recording brain activity.

  • Next Generation Human Imaging: NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will test new ideas and methods for scanning brain activity, including trying to distinguish between the activity of neurons versus the equally common glial cell.

  • Next Generation Human Invasive Devices: With these grants NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will test new methods for using deep brain stimulation to treat a variety of disorders, including stroke, Parkinson's disease, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

  • Non-Invasive Neuromodulation: NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will create new non-invasive brain stimulation techniques and test new ways of using existing devices to treat a variety of disorders. These projects include one that will create a cap that uses ultrasound waves to precisely control different parts of the brain and another that will enhance limb stimulation techniques to rehabilitate movement in stroke patients.

  • Understanding Neural Circuits: NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will explore new techniques for analyzing massive amounts of data about the human brain and use invasive techniques to analyze human brains under a variety of conditions. Examples include the creation of computer programs for detecting and diagnosing Alzheimer's disease and autism and experiments in which electrical brain activity will be monitored while people speak and read.

  • Technology Dissemination and Training: With these grants NIH BRAIN Initiative researchers will use tools developed by BRAIN Initiative projects to investigate a wide range of new ideas, including testing out a highly precise method for blocking epileptic seizures.

-end-
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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