UC Berkeley researchers join Obama’s BRAIN map project

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President Barack Obama officially announced an expansive new brain research initiative at a press conference Tuesday after weighing input from top U.S. scientists, including three from UC Berkeley.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative hopes to provide $300 million in federal grants each year for the next decade to be used exclusively for brain research and the treatment of brain-related disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions but billions of people on this planet through the research that’s done in this BRAIN initiative alone,” Obama said in the press conference.

Paul Alivisatos, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, consulted with the Obama administration on the early stages of the BRAIN initiative. He co-published an article in March calling for an ambitious long-term funding program for brain research similar to the recently proposed initiative.

“(The) project will generate a trove of techniques for the neuroscience community,” the report reads. “Just as better sequencing methods arose as a result of the Human Genome Project. It is time for a large-scale effort in neuroscience to create and apply a new generation of tools.”

The BRAIN initiative is still in the planning stages, but the administration announced that an initial funding plan of $100 million has been secured from public sources, including the National Institute of Health, DARPA and the National Science Foundation.

“The initial $100 million is the down payment — it’s the start,” said John Ngai, director of UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

Ngai attended Tuesday’s White House conference with Alivisatos and Jay Keasling, the associate director for biosciences at the Berkeley lab.

Funds from private sources like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies will also be used for the project.

The president also addressed the sequester cuts to federal research funding that took effect in March, pointing to the BRAIN initiative as a solution. Recent estimates put the potential cost of sequester cuts to the UC system at $49 million, which would negatively impact research on campus.

“A few weeks ago, the directors of some of our national laboratories said that the sequester, these arbitrary across-the-board cuts that have gone into place, are so severe, so poorly designed that they’ll hold back a generation of young scientists,” Obama said. “That’s something we should worry about.”

Alivisatos’ article pointed to the economic benefits of the BRAIN initiative, comparing it to The Human Genome Project, which had a $3.8 billion investment and generated $800 billion in economic impact.

Jacob Brown is the lead higher education reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jacobebrown.