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BRAIN Initiative Working Group Presents Final Report, Cites Retinal Research as “Flagship” and Vision Prosthetics as Instructive to Clinical Research

Legislative Update
June 13, 2014


BRAIN 2025
On June 5, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Working Group presented its final report to the National Institute of Health’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., The ACD accepted the report, and Dr. Collins has issued a statement saying that, “Not only will BRAIN revolutionize neuroscience, it will transform our efforts to help the millions of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, and many other neurological disorders.” The section of the NIH Web site referring to this effort has now been renamed BRAIN 2025.

The report, which calls for $4.5 billion in funding for brain research over the next 12 years, is the follow-up to the interim report issued by the Working Group in September 2013. The Working Group, composed of 15 researchers (with vision research well represented) and a representative each from NIH, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ,and the National Science Foundation (NSF), has identified “the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons” as being particularly rich in opportunity for revolutionary advances. For example, by understanding normal brain function, researchers can better understand perturbations associated with neurological and psychological disorders, as well as develop treatments to repair physical damage caused by stroke, Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), and spinal cord injuries.

One of the primary goals of BRAIN 2025 that the report identifies is cellular phenotyping - the characterization of all cell types across the brain with “molecular, anatomical, and electrophysiological descriptions” of the cells of the brain in selected animal models. The report suggests one example using the mouse brain, including the retina, where it says:

“The retina is the region in which the most progress has been made in the characterization of different cell types, and in the generation of reagents to provide access to those cell types. It therefore has the greatest chance of being completed within a 3-5 year period, and could serve as a flagship project for the BRAIN Initiative. It is relevant to the fields of vision, general sensory and signal processing, and to clinical issues including neurodegenerative diseases and vision disorders.”

The report also discusses how BRAIN 2025 will advance clinical research. One of the listed goals is restoration of sensory functions, including vision.

“Devices to restore vision for those with profound blindness are at an early stage of technological development, with one system recently approved for human use by the FDA [Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System]. By understanding how the neurons in the retina and brain process streams of information from the visual world, it should be possible to devise intelligent retinal or cortical prostheses or other devices to restore sight. Active work is already underway on electrical stimulation of the retina, the optic nerve, the lateral geniculate nucleus, and the primary visual cortex. New technologies such as optogenetics may provide other ways to restore lost vision.”

The BRAIN Initiative was first proposed by President Obama in April 2013 in his Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget, which included $40 million in funding by NIH, $50 million by DARPA, and $20 million by NSF. It also proposed that the federal government partner with companies, foundations, and private research institutions that are already investing in relevant neuroscience research, and would be guided by the Federal Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore the ethical, legal, and societal implications raised by this initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience. In late 2013 and early 2014, each of the three federal agencies announced funding opportunities.

For FY2015, the President’s budget proposed increasing funding to $200 million, with $100 million in funding by NIH. In her June 10 statement at the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee markup, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced support for the NIH increase to $100 million in BRAIN 2025 funding in the draft FY2015 spending bill.

At the June 12 meeting of the National Eye Institute’s (NEI) National Eye Advisory Council (NAEC), it was recommended that NEI hold a workshop in an effort to organize consortia of labs that could link their work on R01 grants that relate to BRAIN 2025. NEI Director Paul Sieving, M.D., Ph.D. agreed with this idea in principle and asked NEI Program Director for Strabismus, Amblyopia, and Visual Processing Michael Steinmetz, Ph.D. to coordinate.