AAAS Testimony: Great Progress in Brain Science Lies Ahead but Will Need Support

Neuroscience is poised to accelerate, with the launch of two large collaborations, but these projects will require dedicated funding and coordination to be successful, AAAS CEO Alan Leshner and others told a House subcommittee.
From left, John Holdren, John Wingfield, Alan Leshner | AAAS/Earl Lane

Neuroscientists are poised to make dramatic advances in understanding the brain and its disorders if the effort is sufficiently coordinated and substantial dedicated funding made available, Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS, told a House subcommittee on 27 February.

Leshner, who was deputy director and acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse before joining AAAS, told the panel that "we are living in unquestionably the most exciting time" since he began his career as a researcher in physiological psychology.

"I've been waiting 30 years for this, and I'm really very pleased," Leshner said at a hearing on federal investments in neuroscience by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. "I'm hoping we will seize the moment."

Leshner said there has been great progress in understanding the brain's structure and function as well as advances in treating a wide array of brain disorders. That progress should accelerate with the launch of two large, multidisciplinary collaborations: the European Commission's Human Brain Project and the U.S. BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies).

$100 Million per year

The approximate amount of U.S. funding for the BRAIN Initiative

$1.6 Billion

The amount the European Brain Project is expected to spend in the next 10 years

Some previous efforts to encourage brain research failed to gain traction, Leshner noted. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared the 1990s to be the Decade of the Brain and shortly thereafter the European Decade of Brain Research was announced. "Yet relatively little special funding was ever allocated to them." Leshner said. "In the absence of substantial dedicated funding, little scientific coordination, and with no real champions of the efforts in the policy-making community, neither the U.S. nor the European brain project gained momentum or generated unified advocacy among scientists."

What's different now? Leshner said there have been key advances in imaging technologies and other research tools that now allow scientists to ask new kinds of questions about the brain. There also is more collaboration involving multiple research disciplines. Combined with an increasing focus on translational research meant to get advances to the bedside more quickly, "the circumstances are dramatically different now," Leshner said.

The other witnesses at the hearing, John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and John C. Wingfield, assistant director for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), also spoke of the promise of new initiatives in the neurosciences.

"Understanding the brain and its relation to behavior really remains one of the most important scientific challenges of our time," Holdren said. His office coordinated the development of the BRAIN Initiative, which aims to accelerate development and application of innovative technologies, with a goal of allowing brain researchers to produce a dynamic new picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.

Oversight Hearing - Federal Investments in Neuroscience Research | US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations

Federal funding for the initiative currently is about $100 million a year. Federal agencies will partner with companies, foundations, and private research institutions that are also investing in relevant neuroscience research, including the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Echoing Holdren, Wingfield also said that understanding the brain is "one of humanity's greatest scientific challenges and achieving this understanding will clearly have great societal benefits."

He said NSF has been investing for more than 30 years in basic research that has brought "transformative breakthroughs in brain research and related enabling technologies." NSF has provided $20 million toward the new BRAIN Initiative in its current budget as well as nearly $14 million to expand cross-cutting research in neuroscience, neuroengineering and cognitive science.

"The new interagency brain initiatives have great potential to take advantage of the dramatic advances we have made in the last decade and continue to accelerate progress in all of both basic and clinical neuroscience," Leshner said. "They should be embraced and supported as fully as we can."

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa,), ranking member of the subcommittee and a passionate supporter of neuroscience, said most American families are touched by neurological diseases and disorders. "Here is an area," he said, "where we can build support for major investments."

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the subcommittee, asked whether there should be a joint international effort on neuroscience comparable to the multi-nation partnership that built the International Space Station. He drew some laughter when he said "even the Chinese" could be invited to participate. Concerned about China's human rights record, Wolf (who is retiring after his current term) regularly has inserted language in funding bills barring NASA from spending appropriated funds on bilateral arrangements with China or Chinese companies.

Holdren said the International Space Station analogy may not be apt, given the diverse lines of inquiry and many disciplines involved in the brain initiative. "I'm not sure we know how to construct a single, centralized operation," Holdren said. But he said there likely will be much more international cooperation going forward on key issues in neuroscience. Leshner added that neuroscience already is among the most collaborative fields in the sciences and "does a good job of self-aggregating."

Wolf also asked whether the United States leads the world in neuroscience. "Pushed, you'd have to say that the U.S. remains number one in neuroscience," Leshner said. But he cautioned that there are "other countries whose overall investments in science are increasing at a rate far greater than ours - they see this as an opportunity area and they have been investing very heavily." The European Brain Project, for example, is expected to spend at least $1.6 billion over the next 10 years.

Leshner said American preeminence in science "is at great risk as the budgets in this country, in constant dollars, have been falling."

Still, he spoke enthusiastically about recent advances in the neurosciences and his hopes for the future. He mentioned diffusion tensor imaging, a promising method for characterizing microstructural changes or differences in the brain. The technique should allow visualization of all the complex circuitry in the brain, he said. Such work depends on collaboration by researchers from many fields, including computational scientists, engineers, physicists, chemists and others. "You can't do modern imaging without a physicist in your lab," Leshner said.