Wednesday, October 01, 2014

White House BRAIN Conference

September 30 is the last day of the fiscal year for the US government. So it's no coincidence that President Obama's BRAIN Initiative1 ended the year with a bang. The NIH BRAIN Awards were announced on the last possible day of FY2014, coinciding with the White House BRAIN Conference. A total of $46 million was dispersed among 58 awards involving over 100 scientists.

I watched most of the conference live stream. The entire video is now available for viewing on YouTube (and conveniently embedded at the bottom of this post). Below are a few idiosyncratic highlights.

I missed the early announcements (e.g., that the correct hashtag was #WHBRAIN) and introduction of the first speaker, a female graduate student. Next was John Holdren, senior advisor to the President on science and technology issues. My notes from his talk consisted of a series of buzz words and phrases, befitting a politician:

“grand challenge”
“moon shots”
“game-changing innovations”
“dynamic understanding of how the brain works”
“at the speed of thought”
“new generation tools and technology”
quoting Obama: “Americans can accomplish anything we set our minds to.”

The first year budget is $100 million, with another $300 million allocated so far.  A recurrent theme was the need for a sustained commitment to funding. Holdren (and others) mentioned the 12 year strategy for NIH, BRAIN 2025, which focuses on technologies, cells, and circuits.

The disconnect with reality came when he mentioned the burden of brain disorders and the prospect of curing them:
“Imagine if no family had to grapple with the helplessness and heartache of watching of a loved with Parkinson's or traumatic brain injury. Imagine if Alzheimer's or ALS or chronic depression were eradicated in our lifetimes.” [NOTE: Holdren is 70]

Ultimately we'd all like to eradicate these diseases, but that's not going to happen by 2025. Is it a good idea to mislead the public about the immediate clinical treatments arising from the NIH BRAIN Awards? How do we educate the public about the importance of basic science and technology development? DARPA is taking a different approach with their fast-tracking of deep brain stimulation treatments in humans. Their goals are even more ambitious: over a 5 year period, conduct clinical trials in human patients with 7 specified psychiatric and neurological disorders, some of which have never been treated with DBS.

Moving right along to the first panel, Cori Bargmann and Mark Schnitzer both did a fine job of discussing advances in circuits/networks and engineering/technology (see Storify below). The next panelists were clinician/researchers Geoffrey Manley on traumatic brain injury and Kerry Ressler on post-traumatic stress disorder. Ressler was bullish on new PTSD therapies, suggesting that it might be the most tractable psychiatric disorder. Manley, on the other hand, had a sobering assessment of TBI treatments derived from cellular neurobiology, noting that the field is on its 32nd or 33rd failed clinical trial.2

This is probably not what the White House wanted to hear, particularly since this panel was brought on to slyly connect the NIH BRAIN Awards to clinical disorders. But this is exactly what people need to hear to understand the utter complexity of trying to cure brain disorders, or at least treat them more effectively.

Further Reading

NEW! Indispensable coverage of Next Generation Human Imaging 
(by @practiCal fMRI):
     i-fMRI: My initial thoughts on the BRAIN Initiative proposals


BRAIN Initiative Funding Opportunites at NIH

Humble BRAIN 2025

And the DARPA deep brain stimulation awards go to...


1 The BRAIN Initiative badge should be awarded by President Obama to research supported by his $100+ million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. This bold research effort will include advances in nanotechnology and purely exploratory efforts to record from thousands of neurons simultaneously. Recipients of BRAIN Awards from NIH, DARPA, and NSF are free to use this fictitious badge made by me.

2 The failure of a very promising clinical trial of progesterone for TBI was very recently announced ("based on 17 years of work with 200 positive papers in pre-clinical models"), although I couldn't find it. Here's the listing in

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At October 01, 2014 2:06 PM, Blogger Angela Ronson said...

I learned TBI is no longer a "Silent Epidemic." I guess it's just an epidemic now.

At October 01, 2014 7:43 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

I guess that's progress, in terms of awareness?

At October 02, 2014 9:41 AM, Anonymous Tannahill Glen said...

There are others factors that can explain the lack of success in PTSD trials, non neurological factors. As for TBI the dept of defense and VA have produced some fantastic research on non neurologic contributions to TBI and PTSD -very helpful--but also some corners have over diagnosed and hyped the diagnoses-not helpful.

At October 02, 2014 3:40 PM, Blogger Cal Cal said...

Note to these speakers: Stop mentioning the Human Genome Project (HGP) in connection with the BRAIN Initiative (BI). The HGP was built around the huge technological advancement of PCR. We don't have anything remotely like that tool on which to build the BI.

What the BI is going to accomplish is wasting money on high level questions in the absence of low level technology.

At October 05, 2014 3:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cal Cal, attacking "high level questions" is not as ridiculous as you may think. It is not a given that investing in "low level technology" is always the right approach. They should do both at the same time, I think, not pick one or the other.


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