UI officials express interest in Obama BRAIN initiative proposal

BY BRIANNA JETT | APRIL 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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Science is turning inward and approaching the next frontier — the human brain.

On April 2, President Obama announced a new project, called the BRAIN Initiative, or Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. This project is a targeted investment of money aimed at mapping and understanding the brain. From that understanding, many scientists hope to find better treatments and cures for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Scientists across the country are excited about the focus on the human brain — and scientists at the University of Iowa are no exception.

“As a scientist who has advocated for increased funding in research, I can’t do anything but applaud the president,” said William Talman, a UI professor of neurology and neuroscience.

Obama addressed this kind of research in his 2013 State of the Union, saying, “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”

The initiative will invest $100 million in research.

About $40 million of that will come from the National Institutes of Health. Talman hopes that from there, the UI might see some of the investment. Historically, the university has been good at applying and receiving federal grants, he said.

“I would expect that we would be as competitive, if not more, than any institution around,” he said.

Although many scientists support the project, some are wary of the amount of money Obama proposed.

“One hundred million dollars is not a huge amount of money in the grand scheme of things,” Talman said. “I’m not sure of what will come out of it.”

Talman believes that the project is very promising, but should only be the beginning of research.

“Trying to unravel the complexity of the brain is such a huge task, $100 million could just be the start of things,” he said.

One of the possible long-term effects of the initiative is better understanding, and possibly curing, diseases like Parkinson’s.

Robin Anthony Elliott, the executive director of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, agreed that the BRAIN Initiative is just the beginning.

“It is a modest investment,” he said. “This initiative is really to provide a framework, a geographic pattern [of the brain].”

Timothy Pedley, the president of the American Academy of Neurology, said the BRAIN Initiative will focus on understanding the normal behavior of the brain. From there, scientists will be able to better understand abnormal behavior, like diseases or trauma effects, and treat or cure those.

“I think it’s a terrific challenge,” Pedley said. “The brain really is the last frontier.”

Elliott is hopeful of what the new project will bring to Parkinson’s disease research, although he does not believe the impact will be immediate.

“Different diseases will gain from this differently, but all diseases will gain in some way,” he said. “It is not going to provide a cure tomorrow.”

Talman also emphasized that the general public will not see results immediately. He estimated that what scientists learn, it will take about ten years for it to directly touch the average man or woman.

“It must be recognized that money spent today won’t lead to a new candy bar tomorrow,” he said.

However, that research is still important to conduct.

“It doesn’t undermine the importance of the research,” Talman said.

Pedley believes that a side effect of this initiative will be a greater understanding among the public of how the brain works.

“I think it is going to be incredibly important for all humans, not just scientists, to understand how the brain works,” he said.

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