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NIH announces first wave of BRAIN grants
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Updated: NIH announces first wave of BRAIN grants

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Tuesday announced the recipients of the agency's first wave of funding for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a $110 million U.S. effort to develop tools for studying how networks of neurons produce thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

After receiving more than 600 applications in response to a call for proposals issued last fall, NIH reviewers selected 58 projects for funding in fiscal year 2014. The grants will fund more than 100 investigators both in the United States and abroad, many of them early in their careers, says neuroscientist Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University in New York City, who led the advisory group to NIH's portion of BRAIN. "Some are just a couple of years out of their Ph.D.s," while others are distinguished leaders of the field, she says. See the full list of grantees.

The list of proposals for exploring new technologies "reads like a mashup" by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, says Meryl Comer, president of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer's Initiative. Researchers at West Virginia University in Morgantown, for example, have received a $538,996 grant to develop a portable PET scanner that humans can wear as they go about their day. Another group at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, has received $497,799 to track the real-time movement of important neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine throughout the human brain.

In June, a working group of prominent neuroscientists laid out an ambitious vision for BRAIN, including seven hig-priority research areas. They included classifying different cell types in the brain, recording and manipulating the activity of thousands of neurons at a time, and developing new human brain imaging technologies that can measure brain activity down to the neuronal level. (Current techniques such as functional MRI can only measure changes in blood flow, a proxy for neuronal firing.)

As the applications poured in, NIH reconsidered some of those priorities, says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Although BRAIN was originally envisioned as a collaboration between neuroscientists and nanoscientists, nanotechnology turned out to be less ripe for application in the brain than many had thought, she says. The applications yielded many other promising directions that hadn't been considered in early discussions, however, such as using targeted ultrasound to manipulate human brain circuits in vivo. Several new rounds of funding opportunities this fall will incorporate what NIH learned in the process of reviewing proposals, she says.

Long term, NIH expects that achieving the BRAIN mission will cost at least $4.5 billion over 12 years. Although NIH hopes that the grants will soon yield insights about the brain that can help cure psychiatric and neurological disorders, the strength of these grants is that they are focused on basic neuroscience, said Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Unlike organs such as the heart or lungs, scientists are still grasping to understand many fundamental aspects of how the brain works. At present, "we don't even have a parts list," he said.

NIH belongs to a growing consortium of federal agencies and private partners committed to the project. In tandem with the NIH announcement, the National Science Foundation announced $12 million in new money neuroengineering research aligned with BRAIN. And, in a separate event at the White House on Tuesday, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced that the Food and Drug Administration and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity are also joining the initiative.

The agencies’ involvement, combined with more than $270 million in research and development funds from companies, foundations, and universities such as Google, General Electric, and the Simons Foundation, bring the total funding aligned with BRAIN’s research objectives to over $300 million, Holdren said. The public-private partnerships and interdisciplinary focus of BRAIN is “very different from other science initiatives that we’ve seen previously,” said nanoscientist Paul Alivisatos of the University of California, Berkeley, during a panel discussion at the White House event. “BRAIN may turn out to be a model of what a new science initiative is.”

*Update, 1 October, 1:17 p.m.: This article has been updated with more information.