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An update on the NIH BRAIN Initiative and on the NIDCD's January advisory council meeting

A rendering of the human brain

April 6, 2021

When it comes to the BRAIN Initiative, there is a lot to be excited about—a new director, an array of transformative advances, and the start of a new phase. In this director’s message, I describe this groundbreaking NIH program, which offers opportunities for support for the NIDCD neuroscience community. I have also provided a brief summary of topics discussed at our most recent National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NDCD) Advisory Council Meeting in January.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative: Catalyzing neuroscience breakthroughs by building new tools

The National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative began in 2013 as a large-scale effort to accelerate neuroscience research by providing researchers with tools to understand behavior and to study and treat human brain disorders. It is collaboratively managed by 10 institutes, including the NIDCD.

The BRAIN Initiative is supported by Congress through the regular appropriations process, and with funds from the 21st Century Cures Act. To date, more than 900 awards, totaling approximately $1.8 billion, have been made by the BRAIN Initiative, and we anticipate $5.8 billion in total funding through 2026.

In March 2020, we welcomed John Ngai, Ph.D., a former NIDCD and BRAIN Initiative grantee at the University of California, Berkeley, as the director of the BRAIN Initiative. At Berkeley, Dr. Ngai studied the cellular and molecular basis of olfaction, and he worked to further our understanding of the diversity of cell types in the brain. Dr. Ngai’s appointment marked a new chapter for the initiative, which was then entering a second phase focused on large transformative projects and laying the foundation for interventions for human brain disorders. We are enormously grateful to have been able to recruit such a valued member of the NIDCD community to this important leadership position at NIH.

A primary aim of the BRAIN Initiative is building tools—including computational tools—and knowledge resources for understanding how neural circuits function. A number of these tools and resources are broadly applicable across diverse fields of research, including NIDCD-related mission areas. For example, a network of centers and laboratories is currently cataloging all of the brain’s cell types, and several teams are charting the whole brain circuitry of mammalian model organisms.

Since its launch, the BRAIN Initiative has awarded 110 grants—totaling more than $400 million—in research related to NIDCD mission areas. Many awards involved current and former NIDCD grantees. This investment has led to transformative technologies that have accelerated the pace of discovery: investigators have programmed a voice synthesizer to mimic natural speech based on people’s brain signals, visualized neuronal activity in the olfactory epithelium of a live animal in response to odorant, and made advances toward developing an intracranial auditory nerve implant similar to the cochlear implant, and a device to treat some forms of tinnitus.

As Dr. Ngai explains, “The scientific mission areas of NIDCD—spanning speech and language, auditory and vestibular function, and chemosensation—provide not only fertile ground for understanding the molecular, cellular and circuit basis of behavior, but also great inspiration and opportunity for developing new tools and therapies that can be generalized across diverse areas of neuroscience.”

BRAIN Initiative grantees range from early-stage investigators to well-established researchers. While the initiative largely focuses on collaborative, multi-disciplinary science, it supports an array of funding mechanisms, including single-investigator awards, training and small business grants, supplements to existing awards, and pathway to independence grants for those transitioning from postdoctoral to faculty positions.

You can learn more by visiting the BRAIN Initiative website and by attending the upcoming annual meeting, which will be held virtually June 15-17. The meeting is free and open to all.

Congress has allocated $560 million to the BRAIN Initiative for this fiscal year, a $60 million increase from last year. I encourage you to apply for an award if your interests fall within its scope. The initiative provides a unique opportunity to develop new tools and explore novel approaches for understanding brain circuitry, and it welcomes perspectives from across scientific disciplines, including engineering, mathematics, computational science, and physics. We at NIH recognize that enhancing workforce diversity enhances creativity, and the BRAIN Initiative is committed to promoting diversity and inclusiveness in all of its research and training programs.

You may view the current funding opportunity announcements and other information on the initiative’s funding page. If you need guidance in building a collaborative, interdisciplinary team or navigating the application process, please contact Amy Poremba, Ph.D., a program director at the NIDCD who represents us at the BRAIN Initiative.

National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Advisory Council Meeting, January 28-29

On January 28-29, the institute’s advisory council convened virtually. Portions of our council meetings are open to the public, and I invite you to watch the archived videocasts of open portions of this meeting (January 28 and January 29) and join us online for our next meeting, to be held virtually May 20-21. A few highlights from January’s meeting are summarized below.

  • The council’s Working Group on Diversity and Inclusiveness reported on its recent efforts, highlighting four proposed initiatives: diversifying the pipeline of researchers beginning at the undergraduate level; building mentoring and partnership opportunities at all career stages; establishing funding that is earmarked for building diversity; and increasing awareness of opportunities. To view this presentation, start at the 25 minute mark in the January 28 videocast.
  • The council welcomed Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D., director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), who provided a nuanced and illuminating presentation on addressing racism through biomedical research. To view this presentation, start at the 1 hour mark in the January 28 videocast.
  • Amy Poremba, Ph.D., an NIDCD program director in the Division of Scientific Programs who represents the institute at the trans-NIH Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, briefed the council on this very active research portfolio. To view this presentation, start at the 19 minute mark in the January 29 videocast.
  • Roger Miller, Ph.D., an NIDCD program director in the Division of Scientific Programs reviewed translational approaches to neural engineering before introducing two NIDCD awardees, Razi Haque, Ph.D., of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Charles Della Santina, M.D., Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who updated us on their groundbreaking research on neural prostheses. To view this presentation, start at the 1 hour, 11 minute mark in the January 29 videocast.
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