‘Dream Team’ to unlock mysteries of the brain

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – It sounds like science fiction: a group of doctors and scientists seeking to unravel the mysteries of the human brain.

But this $100 million project is very real, and the first phase will take place at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

A “dream team” of top minds will gather at NIH to map a strategy for the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, initiative.

“The dream team will focus on what are appropriate goals for the first several years and different periods of time after that,” says Dr. Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at NIH.

She says initial projects are expected to focus on developing the technological tools researchers need to get a better look at just how the human brain functions. She says those tools will then enable significant advances to be made in all aspects of brain science.

Landis says three federal agencies will be involved: NIH, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They will work with partners in the private sector – much like the successful project to map the human genome.

The funding has yet to be approved and the multi-agency project comes at a time of budget-tightening in Washington. But the money will be spread across those three agencies over a period of years.

Landis says no one should expect quick results. But she stresses the money will be well spent.

“The possibilities are indeed endless and all it is going to take is the will to actually implement this project, and the commitment of scientists to do the work to provide these new insights,” Landis says.

President Barack Obama formally unveiled the brain initiative on Tuesday saying the knowledge gained will be “transformative.”

Landis says a better understanding of brain function is likely to lead to better treatments for Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other brain disorders. It may even result in ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and create innovative strategies to deal with paralysis resulting from brain injury.

But doctors caution it will take time to unravel the mysteries of the brain and then apply all that has been learned to better treatments.

“Are we going to have have paralyzed patients walking tomorrow? No. Are we going to have significantly better treatments for epilepsy tomorrow? No,” says Landis.

But could it happen in time? To that, she gives an unqualified “yes.”

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