For better brain health, reason to celebrate

As we kick off the new year, those of us working toward better brain health have something to celebrate. Tucked into the spending measure passed by Congress and signed by the president on Dec. 16 was the gift of increased funding for neuroscience priorities, extending good will toward millions of Americans affected by Alzheimer's disease, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury and many other conditions signified by cognitive impairment.

The bill contains a $21 million increase for brain-related projects at the National Science Foundation, including the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

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Described by the White House as having "the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics," the BRAIN Initiative is a multi-agency effort to develop new technologies to map the brain's structure and processes used in thinking and memory. The initiative also taps the expertise of high-tech firms, academic institutions and scientists — all united in pursuing the goal of better preventing, diagnosing and treating brain impairments.

The spending bill also contains a $25 million increase for Alzheimer's research at the National Institutes of Health, and $47 million in funding for the Autism and Other Developmental Disorders program at the Department of Health and Human Services. And the bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to focus on several specific needs of veterans and active-duty military members who have experienced brain injury and other mental health disorders.

This show of support from Congress will help fight some of the nation's most pressing brain-health problems. As we enter 2015, cognitive health challenges affect the lives of millions of Americans. A few examples: 

  • One in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ASD, a developmental disability, is characterized by impaired social cognition, which makes relating to other people difficult.
  • More than 2 million Americans each year experience a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Sufferers run the gamut from soldiers on the battlefield to athletes to those injured in car accidents or falls. TBI is a leading cause of long-term disability.
  • And more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, a number that is expected to grow rapidly as baby boomers get older. Alzheimer's robs patients of their minds and memories, eventually making it impossible for them to care for themselves.

Despite these growing public health concerns, there is reason for hope. The field of neuroscience is advancing rapidly, and proving that our brains — even those impaired by injury or illness — are dynamic, adaptable and repairable. Just as we can improve our physical health after illness or injury through proper exercise, we can also enhance and repair our brains through appropriate interventions.

My colleagues are discovering ways to build resilience, regain cognitive function and retrain the brain to maximize its performance across the lifespan. Our team at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas has designed and scientifically validated programs to improve strategic thinking, advanced reasoning and problem-solving skills. As a result, participants experience brain, cognitive and real life improvements. We are also helping military service members, spouses and caregivers improve productivity, reduce stress and enhance decision-making skills.

Other research institutions across the country are working on similarly brain-changing projects. But in order to continue making progress in neuroscience research and to translate our findings into practical applications that can be implemented on a wide scale, we need the active support and involvement of Congress.

That is why we are grateful to bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate who, by voting for the omnibus appropriations bill, lent their support to efforts to understand the complexities of the human brain and improve its function.

Chapman, Ph.D., is the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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