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The BRAIN Initiative: A Grand Challenge for Science and Technology

May 28, 2014
David Shurtleff, Ph.D.
David Shurtleff, Ph.D.

Deputy Director
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

View Dr. Shurtleff’s biographical sketch

NCCAM is one of the NIH Institutes and Centers participating in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative launched in 2013 by President Obama. You may wonder what this participation involves.

The BRAIN Initiative is one of the White House’s “21st Century Grand Challenges,” described in part as having “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems.” 

BRAIN supports a new, bold, cutting-edge research effort designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain and to uncover new ways to prevent, treat, and cure brain disorders. Examples include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, mood and anxiety disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorders. Brain disorders pose an enormous burden worldwide. Virtually all of us have family members, friends, and colleagues who have been affected by these disorders.

NIH is one of BRAIN’s three Federal funders, along with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation; foundations and private research institutions are also investing. At NIH, the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director formed the BRAIN Working Group, made up of experts external to NIH and across an array of neuroscience disciplines. In September 2013, this group delivered an interim report, including an executive summary, of nine recommendations for high-priority research areas.  

After considering those recommendations, the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research (which includes NCCAM) released the inaugural set of NIH BRAIN Initiative projects: six funding opportunity announcements. This expected initial investment of $40 million will be targeted toward innovative tool and technology development. Awards are expected to be announced in September 2014.

I am very excited about NCCAM’s participation in BRAIN. First, I believe that the timing is optimal, as science is poised to take on this grandest of challenges. As examples, the research community will marshal multiple disciplines (such as neuroscience, engineering, mathematics, and physics) on projects in innovative ways; develop new conceptual frameworks, technologies, and algorithms; and uncover new approaches to work with Big Data.

Second, there is promise for the NCCAM portfolio. We are investing in better understanding of pain and how it is modulated—e.g., by the brain’s emotional states—and will benefit if the research methods are significantly improved. We are also interested in mind and body approaches (such as meditation and yoga) for treating pain and other brain-related disorders. While we know it is likely that the brain undergoes changes from their use, we need to learn more—and we will learn more, as through imaging.

We at NCCAM are excited to be involved in this great challenge of the 21st century, and we welcome your suggestions on additional ways NCCAM can take advantage of the opportunity that BRAIN presents. Stay tuned for more updates.


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I would like to see research addressing Migraine Disease and the 36 Million Americans who suffer from this painful and often chronic neurological condition.

Very Informative!

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