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BRAIN Initiative

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Understanding how the brain works is arguably one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time.

–Alivisatos et al.[1]

The White House BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is a collaborative, public-private research initiative announced by the Obama administration on April 2, 2013, with the goal of supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function.[2][3][4][5][6]

This activity is a Grand Challenge focused on revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, and was developed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as part of a broader White House Neuroscience Initiative.[7] Inspired by the Human Genome Project, BRAIN aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Participants in BRAIN and affiliates of the project include DARPA and IARPA as well as numerous private companies, universities, and other organizations in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Denmark.[8]


The BRAIN Initiative reflects a number of influences, stemming back over a decade. Some of these include: planning meetings at the National Institutes of Health that led to the NIH's Blueprint for Neuroscience Research;[9] workshops at the National Science Foundation (NSF) on cognition, neuroscience, and convergent science, including a 2006 report on "Grand Challenges of Mind and Brain";[10] reports from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine's Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders, including "From Molecules to Mind: Challenges for the 21st Century," a report of a June 25, 2008 Workshop on Grand Challenges in Neuroscience.;[11] years of research and reports from scientists and professional societies; and congressional interest.

One important activity was the Brain Activity Map Project. In September 2011, molecular biologist Miyoung Chun of The Kavli Foundation organized a conference in London, at which scientists first put forth the idea of such a project.[4][12] At subsequent meetings, scientists from US government laboratories, including members of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allen Institute for Brain Science, along with representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, discussed possibilities for a future government-led project.[2]

Other influences included the interdisciplinary "Decade of the Mind" project led by James L. Olds, who is currently the Assistant Director for Biological Sciences at NSF,[13][14] and the "Revolutionizing Prosthetics" project at DARPA, led by Dr. Geoffrey Ling and shown on 60 Minutes in April 2009.[15]

Development of the plan for the BRAIN Initiative within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) was led by OSTP and included the following EOP staff: Philip Rubin, then Principal Assistant Director for Science and leader of the White House Neuroscience Initiative; Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation; Cristin Dorgelo, then Assistant Director for Grand Challenges, and later Chief of Staff at OSTP; and Carlos Peña, Assistant Director for Emerging Technologies and currently the Division Director for the Division of Neurological and Physical Medicine Devices, in the Office of Device Evaluation, Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).[16][17]


NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and President Barack Obama announcing the BRAIN Initiative

On April 2, 2013, at a White House event, President Barack Obama announced The BRAIN Initiative, with proposed initial expenditures for fiscal year 2014 of approximately $110 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).[4][5][6] The President also directed the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore the ethical, legal, and societal implications raised by the initiative and by neuroscience in general. Additional commitments were also made by the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and The Kavli Foundation. The NIH also announced the creation of a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director, led by neuroscientists Cornelia Bargmann and William Newsome and with ex officio participation from DARPA and NSF, to help shape NIH's role in the BRAIN Initiative. NSF planned to receive advice from its directorate advisory committees, from the National Science Board, and from a series of meetings bringing together scientists in neuroscience and related areas.[4][5][6]

Experimental approaches[edit]

News reports said the research would map the dynamics of neuron activity in mice and other animals[3] and eventually the tens of billions of neurons in the human brain.[18]

In a 2012 scientific commentary outlining experimental plans for a more limited project, Alivisatos et al. outlined a variety of specific experimental techniques that might be used to achieve what they termed a "functional connectome", as well as new technologies that will have to be developed in the course of the project.[1] They indicated that initial studies might be done in Caenorhabditis elegans, followed by Drosophila, because of their comparatively simple neural circuits. Mid-term studies could be done in zebrafish, mice, and the Etruscan shrew, with studies ultimately to be done in primates and humans. They proposed the development of nanoparticles that could be used as voltage sensors that would detect individual action potentials, as well as nanoprobes that could serve as electrophysiological multielectrode arrays. In particular, they called for the use of wireless, noninvasive methods of neuronal activity detection, either utilizing microelectronic very-large-scale integration, or based on synthetic biology rather than microelectronics. In one such proposed method, enzymatically produced DNA would serve as a "ticker tape record" of neuronal activity,[1][19] based on calcium ion-induced errors in coding by DNA polymerase.[20] Data would be analyzed and modeled by large scale computation.[1] A related technique proposed the use of high-throughput DNA sequencing for rapidly mapping neural connectivity.[21]


The timeline proposed by the Working Group in 2014 is:[22]

  • 2016–2020: technology development and validation
  • 2020–2025: application of those technologies in an integrated fashion to make fundamental new discoveries about the brain

Working group[edit]

The advisory committee is:[23]


As of December 2018, the BRAIN Initiative website lists the following participants and affiliates:


Scientists offered differing views of the plan. Neuroscientist John Donoghue said that the project would fill a gap in neuroscience research between, on the one hand, activity measurements at the level of brain regions using methods such as fMRI, and, on the other hand, measurements at the level of single cells.[3] Psychologist Ed Vul expressed concern, however, that the initiative would divert funding from individual investigator studies.[3] Neuroscientist Donald Stein expressed concern that it would be a mistake to begin by spending money on technological methods, before knowing exactly what would be measured.[4] Physicist Michael Roukes argued instead that methods in nanotechnology are becoming sufficiently mature to make the time right for a brain activity map.[4] Neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás declared at the first Rockefeller meeting "What has happened here is magnificent, never before in neuroscience have I seen so much unity in such a glorious purpose."[24]

The projects face great logistical challenges. Neuroscientists estimated that the project would generate 300 exabytes of data every year, presenting a significant technical barrier.[25] Most of the available high-resolution brain activity monitors are of limited use, as they must be invasively implanted surgically by opening the skull.[25] Parallels have been drawn to past large-scale government-led research efforts including the map of the human genome, the voyage to the moon, and the development of the atomic bomb.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Alivisatos, A. Paul; Chun, Miyoung; Church, George M.; Greenspan, Ralph J.; Roukes, Michael L.; Yuste, Rafael (June 2012). "The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics". Neuron. 74 (6): 970–974. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.006. PMC 3597383. PMID 22726828.
  2. ^ a b c Markoff, John (February 18, 2013). "Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain". New York Times. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d Szalavitz, Maia (February 19, 2013). "Brain Map: President Obama Proposes First Detailed Guide of Human Brain Function". Time. Retrieved February 19, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Markoff, John; Gorman, James (April 2, 2013). "Obama to unveil initiative to map the human brain". New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2013.
  5. ^ a b c Fox, Maggie (April 2, 2013). "White House pitches brain mapping project". NBC News. Archived from the original on August 4, 2020. Retrieved April 2, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c "Fact Sheet: BRAIN Initiative". White House Office of the Press Secretary. April 2, 2013. Retrieved April 2, 2013.
  7. ^ "White House Neuroscience Initiative". Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved 7 May 2015 – via National Archives.
  8. ^ a b "Participants". The BRAIN Initiative. Archived from the original on 2021-11-12. Retrieved 2019-05-13.
  9. ^ "NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research". nih.gov. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  10. ^ "NSF Report on Grand Challenges of Mind and Brain". NSF publication. NSF. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  11. ^ "Workshop on Grand Challenges in Neuroscience". Institute of Medicine. National Academies of Science. Archived from the original on 21 February 2011. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  12. ^ Johnson, Carolyn (April 5, 2013). "Local Scientists on Brain Mapping Dream Team Reflect on Challenges, Opportunity". Boston Globe. Retrieved April 11, 2013.
  13. ^ Olds, James L. (Apr–Jun 2011). "For an International Decade of the Mind". The Malaysian Journal of Medical Studies. 18 (2): 1–2. PMC 3216206. PMID 22135580.
  14. ^ "NSF Selects James Olds to head Biological Science Directorate". NSF.gov. NSF. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  15. ^ "The Pentagon's Bionic Arm". CBS News. 10 April 2009. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  16. ^ "White House OSTP staff". Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved 9 May 2015 – via National Archives.
  17. ^ "BRAIN Grand Challenges Conference". IEEE EMBS. IEEE. Archived from the original on 2015-12-03. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  18. ^ Human brains average 86 billion neurons by a recent estimate. Source: How many neurons make a human brain? Billions fewer than we thought. Notes & Theories. The Guardian. Feb 28, 2012.
  19. ^ Kording, Konrad (December 2011). "Of Toasters and Molecular Ticker Tapes". PLOS Computational Biology. 7 (12): e1002291. Bibcode:2011PLSCB...7E2291K. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002291. PMC 3248391. PMID 22219716.
  20. ^ Zamft, Bradley Michael; Marblestone, Adam H.; Kording, Konrad; Schmidt, Daniel; Martin-Alarcon, Daniel; Tyo, Keith; Boyden, Edward S.; Church, George (August 2012). "Measuring Cation Dependent DNA Polymerase Fidelity Landscapes by Deep Sequencing". PLOS ONE. 7 (8): e43876. Bibcode:2012PLoSO...743876Z. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043876. PMC 3425509. PMID 22928047.
  21. ^ Zador, Anthony M.; Dubnau, Joshua; Oyibo, Hassana K.; Zhan, Huiqing; Cao, Gang; Peikon, Ian D. (2012). "Sequencing the Connectome". PLOS Biology. 10 (10): e1001411. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001411. PMC 3479097. PMID 23109909.
  22. ^ "NIH embraces bold, 12-year scientific vision for BRAIN Initiative". National Institutes of Health (NIH). 16 July 2015.
  23. ^ "Advisory Committee to the Director" (PDF). Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Working Group. National Institutes of Health. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 April 2013. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  24. ^ Wadman, Meredith (2016-09-20). "Big dreams emerge for big brain science projects". Science | AAAS. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  25. ^ a b Markoff, John (February 26, 2013). "Connecting the Neural Dots". New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

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