From the BRAIN Director: Expanding the impact of neuroscience research

The BRAIN Initiative continues to fund cross-cutting and accelerated discovery in neuroscience across a diverse network of institutions and organizations, laboratories, researcher fields, and geographic locations. 

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is at the forefront of cross-cutting and accelerated discovery in neuroscience research, bringing together a diverse network of institutions, labs, and researchers worldwide. In fiscal year 2023 (FY23), the NIH BRAIN Initiative, made up of and managed by 10 NIH Institutes and Centers, funded over 150 new research projects, totaling more than $220 million.

Among this past year’s funded projects, we are thrilled to announce the launch of BRAIN Initiative Connectivity Across Scales (BRAIN CONNECTS), one of the NIH BRAIN Initiative’s three large-scale transformative projects that is expected to provide ground truth information about the brain’s “wiring diagram,” information that is crucial for testing new hypotheses about brain circuit function. The initial round of BRAIN CONNECTS awards supports 11 grants projected to total $150 million over 5 years with an aim to develop technologies that comprehensively map neural connections in humans and laboratory animals. For example, in one portfolio, researchers will use ultra-high throughput electron microscopy methods to uncover the brain’s wiring diagram and place it into the context of cell types. Other teams will develop novel DNA sequencing tools to trace single neurons across the brain. For more on BRAIN CONNECTS, read the web announcement.

As part of funded projects in fiscal year 2022, we launched and advanced our two other large-scale transformative projects: the BRAIN Initiative Cell Atlas Network (BICAN) and the Armamentarium for Precision Brain Cell Access. Together, the awards for BICAN, BRAIN CONNECTS, and the Armamentarium aim to revolutionize neuroscience research by illuminating the foundational principles governing the circuit basis of behavior and informing new approaches to brain disorders. One of this year’s FY23 funded projects continues to expand on the Armamentarium with an aim to optimize the use of viral gene therapy to investigate specific neuron cells in mice and non-human primates.

The overarching goal of the transformative projects described above is to enable our understanding of neural circuit function, embodied in part by innovative projects aimed at understanding how brain circuit activities can influence mental experience and behaviors as part of the Targeted BRAIN Circuits projects. With over 30 projects in this portfolio, we continue to explore various circuit functions in different systems, including visually guided behaviors, auditory learning, long-term memory consolidation, and multisensory decision making. These exploratory projects will further our knowledge of brain circuit function and its roles in regulating behaviors.

One-fifth of FY23 projects focus on tools and technologies for the modulation and recording of neuronal signals from the central nervous system. These projects include developing new tools, leveraging current technologies to dissect biological and biophysical characteristics of the human brain, optimizing implanted devices for data recording and treatments of diseases, and carrying out large-scale data recording and optimization. Together, these projects will expand our capabilities for preclinical research experience and hone the next generation of therapeutics that use deep brain stimulation. 

In addition to these large-scale projects, the NIH BRAIN Initiative continues to support research that develops broadly accessible cloud-based frameworks and multimodal tools for the brain cell atlas. The Initiative is also supporting research that created the OpenNeuro data archive, which enables researchers to quickly share a broad range of neuroscience data types based on the Brain Imaging Data Structure standard. The Initiative also funds research focused on enhancing user-friendly features for the Neuroscience Multi-omic (NeMO) Archive, which contains over one million files of single-cell transcriptomic and epigenomic data from mammalian brains. 

A portion of the FY23 funding portfolios is also dedicated to the neuroethical implications of its BRAIN-funded research. In one project, researchers will develop a toolkit outreach strategy and guidance for key stakeholders to increase participation from underrepresented populations in neuroimaging research. In another project, researchers will focus on benefits and post-trial access for patients who participate in implantable neurotechnological clinical trials.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative is committed to fostering scientific excellence through investments in tools, training, and data resources and by increasing diversity and inclusivity in the research community through the Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP). This grant application requirement encourages the research community to consider how diverse perspectives would broadly advance their proposed specific aims.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative continues to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain through the development of new and innovative technologies and approaches. If you want an opportunity to explore BRAIN-funded research in action, then be sure to save the date for the hybrid 10th Annual BRAIN Initiative Conference, taking place June 17-18, 2024, in Bethesda, MD.

In gratitude,

John Ngai, Ph.D.

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