BRAIN needs defined goals to be a success

Recently, researchers voiced concerns that the government shutdown could kill President Obama’s ambitious project to significantly expand our limited understanding of how the human brain functions.

The plan, known as BRAIN (or, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), has been compared to President Kennedy’s moonshot and the mapping of the human genome. Like these projects, it will require a massive effort of many diverse scientists and huge public and governmental support.

But there is another concern related to BRAIN that, beyond any congressionally induced roadblocks, could delay the application of this massive scientific effort to advance public health: BRAIN lacks clearly defined and relevant goals.

The project leaders have formed an advisory council of leading neuroscientists and related researchers tasked with setting goals and research priorities. Earlier this year, the council identified a set of project themes as well as initial core research priorities, including identifying and characterizing all types of nervous system cells; creating a structural map of the brain; and deepening the understanding of how neuronal activities affect cognition and behavior.

While each of these lines of scientific inquiry are worthy of further exploration, none of them are clearly focused on achieving discoveries that will allow us to prevent, reduce and better treat diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The lack of clearly defined goals connected to defeating Alzheimer’s and other grave diseases raises real questions as to the ultimate impact of an endeavor like BRAIN, particularly during a time when federal research resources are increasingly scarce.

All of us in biomedical research know that breakthroughs do not happen overnight, and that the impact of any given breakthrough is not fully understood immediately. That being said, a project as large-scale and pricey as BRAIN should include some clear disease-related goals, including some that are relevant to the massive epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease.

The absence of clear goals for the newly funded BRAIN Initiative contrasts sharply with the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease, enacted in 2012 but without specific funding.

The overarching goal of this national plan is to prevent and better treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025, a mere 12 years from now. This goal is at least as bold, ambitious and daunting as Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon within nine years. But it is a necessary goal, given the current and looming health and fiscal burdens caused by Alzheimer’s.

Even with an all-out commitment of the public and private resources needed, there is no guarantee that this goal will be achieved, particularly given the challenges inherent in Alzheimer’s research and neuroscience research more broadly. But absent the allocation of the necessary resources, we are all but certain to fail.

Many in the public assume brain-related research and any good science will yield advances in human health. But to make this translation to human health requires planning and well-defined target goals from the beginning. We hope that the BRAIN Initiative will embrace the goal of stopping Alzheimer’s by 2025 by including high-impact, goal-oriented and milestone-driven research projects designed with the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in mind.

By focusing more of the resources and energies of the BRAIN Initiative on Alzheimer’s and other targeted efforts, we have the opportunity to achieve a truly lasting legacy.

Doody is the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Neurology. Trojanowski is the director of the National Institute on Aging-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Core Center in the Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania. Both are founding members of the ResearchersAgainstAlzheimer’s Network.