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House Appropriations Hearing on Neuroscience

The House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies held a hearing on March 26 on “Federal Investments in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology.” The hearing covered investments that the federal government has already made in neuroscience research, recent scientific breakthroughs, and the importance of continued funding. Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) and Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) each expressed their enthusiasm for federal funding of neuroscience, noting that neuroscience research has had broad bipartisan support, especially in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Witnesses included AAAS Fellow Dr. Steven Hyman on behalf of AAAS and the Society for Neuroscience; Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Dr. James Olds, Assistant Director for Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF); and Zack Lynch, the Executive Director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization. Dr. Hyman noted that, considering the brain’s complexity, there are significant challenges involved in addressing neurological illnesses, which include Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, autism, depression, and schizophrenia. Furthermore, he pointed out that brain research demands a higher level of innovative and indirect research techniques, as tissue cannot be removed from the live human brain. Dr. Hyman described several technologies which have made substantial progress in advancing neurological research, and emphasized the success of DNA sequencing. He noted that due to federal investment, the cost of DNA sequencing has fallen a millionfold in the past decade, enabling large-scale clinical studies into conditions with many genetic factors, including autism and schizophrenia. Such a drastic fall in cost has attracted pharmaceutical companies back to this field of research.

Chairman Culberson expressed his vision for genetic testing, and for being able to cure a genetic disease of an unborn child through amniotic fluid. Rep. Fattah commented on the enormous task of classifying and mapping the different types of the brain’s 100 billion neurons, and highlighted his own work in bringing together an international conference on neuroscience research. He asked Dr. Olds what the next step is for neuroscience research, to which Dr. Olds responded that neuroscientists are currently working on completely modeling the circuit for the olfactory system (sense of smell). Following this breakthrough, the next step would be to model circuits of increasing complexity, beginning with the hippocampus, the disorder of which plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

Rep. Fattah later asked Mr. Lynch, who represents the neurotechnology industry, how industry in the United States competes on a global scale. Mr. Lynch remarked that about 450 of the world’s 800 neurotechnology companies reside in the United States, that pharmaceutical sales play into a large part of their revenue, and that they are waiting on advances in basic research to develop the next generation of treatments. He and Rep. Fattah agreed that the world’s next “wealth-building phase” will be characterized by an information revolution and a deep understanding of how the brain processes information.

    Dr. Olds reviewed NSF grants for neuroscience, and he said that between 2009 and 2013, NSF awarded 150-200 neuroscience grants each year, and in 2014, 250 grants were awarded. NSF expects 300 awards this year, and 400 in 2016, if the President’s budget request is approved. These awards represent about 20 percent of all neuroscience grant proposals the NSF receives.

Dr. Olds also described how supercomputers, particularly Blue Waters, play a role in brain research. He listed blood flow modeling, ion channels, and gene expression as active areas of research at Blue Waters. He noted that the brain is a model for high-performance computing with low energy consumption, and that understanding the brain’s information-processing architecture will lead to even higher-performance computing. Chairman Culberson expressed concerns about computers modeled on the human brain becoming sentient; Dr. Hyman described several panels on ethics in the scientific community, and called for a robust conversation about such issues, including artificial intelligence, while emphasizing that such concerns should not bring research to a halt.


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