BRAIN at 10: A View from the National Institute of Mental Health

Headshot of Dr. Joshua Gordon

The BRAIN Initiative is marking a milestone—10 years of advancing neuroscience and neurotechnology research by funding innovative projects. As part of a rotating series of blog posts, the Directors of the BRAIN Initiative-partnering Institutes and Centers share their voice and perspectives on the impact BRAIN has made on their respective missions—and vice versa.  

By Joshua A. Gordon, MD, PhD, Director, NIMH

For 75 years, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has vigorously pursued its mission to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure. Basic neuroscience research is a key component of our broad portfolio that seeks to build a foundation for translation into novel approaches to treatment and prevention.

For the last decade, the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology® Initiative, or The BRAIN Initiative®, has dramatically accelerated our basic neuroscience research efforts and progress, and we’re already starting to see the return on these crucial investments with translational successes.  

QHow has the BRAIN Initiative advanced or shaped the NIMH mission? 

NIMH’s involvement in the BRAIN Initiative has provided critical resources to help us understand the biological underpinnings of mental illnesses, which is a central component of our mission. Importantly, scientists are using tools, technologies, and resources developed through the BRAIN Initiative to improve on existing treatments. For example, scientists are using novel brain modulation tools, including ultrasound and deep brain stimulation, to treat people living with treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

Q. How has NIMH participated in the BRAIN Initiative?

NIMH co-leads the BRAIN Initiative along with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Eight other NIH institutes and centers are also part of this NIH-wide endeavor. In particular, our institute co-leads two focal areas of the BRAIN Initiative: Tools and Technologies for Cells and Circuits and Data Science and Informatics.

The Tools and Technologies for Cells and Circuits research program aims to define, characterize, and access the many diverse cell types of the brain. The Cell Census and Cell Atlas networks, which are part of this program, have already shown amazing successrecently releasing detailed cellular maps of the human, nonhuman primate, and mouse brains. These incredibly detailed resources enable neuroscience researchers to advance knowledge about the cellular basis of brain function and dysfunction, helping pave the way for a new generation of precision therapeutics for people with mental illnesses and other brain disorders. Researchers are building on these detailed knowledge scaffolds to map the impact of risk factors for mental illnesses.

The recently launched Armamentarium for Precision Brain Cell Access transformative project, also part of the Tools and Technologies for Cells and Circuits program, is particularly exciting. The project aims to identify and validate regulatory regions of genes that researchers can exploit to probe the functions of specific cell types in both model organisms and humans. Although early progress uncovered circuits involved in cognition and emotion, the real payoff will come when this revolutionary project is complete. Scientists at NIMH and elsewhere will be able to use these tools to rapidly expand our understanding of complex behavior and, we hope, develop truly transformative therapies tailored to an individual’s unique biology.

The second area that NIMH manages directly is the BRAIN Initiative Data Science and Informatics program, which has developed and maintained nine data archives for storing, managing, and sharing all BRAIN Initiative data. The archives are domain-specific, covering diverse data types including neuroimaging, neurophysiology, multi-omics, light microscopic imaging, electron microscopic imaging, behavior, and more. The program has also developed a variety of community standards, which allow for consistent data collection, description, formatting, organization, and analysisin keeping with the BRAIN Initiative’s commitment to open science. Through this program, NIMH has also developed many informatics or software tools for integrating, visualizing, and analyzing multi-modality data. NIMH scientists are already using these datasets to make new discoveries relevant to our understanding of mental illnesses.

Q. Why do you think it’s important for NIMH to participate in the NIH BRAIN Initiative?  

The brain is the most complex organ in the body—made up of billions of cells linked through trillions of networked connections. If we want to fully understand and treat mental illnesses, we must understand these cells and connections.

The BRAIN Initiative brings together a diverse research community. Projects are conducted not only by neuroscientists, but also by physicists, engineers, mathematicians, chemists, and physician scientists who employ innovative strategies to develop and validate tools with a common goal: advancing neuroscience research to understand the human brain. This level of collaboration across expertise domains is critical to making groundbreaking discoveries in brain cell structure, function, development, and organization necessary for supporting future prevention, treatments, and cures for mental illnesses.

NIMH is excited about the work that has already been accomplished through our participation in the BRAIN Initiative, and we are eager for the many scientific discoveries on the horizon from this transformational research effort.

Image: Joshua A. Gordon, MD, PhD, Director, NIMH

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black and white image of people working on laptops at a counter height table on stools at the annual BRAIN meeting