Guest Column: BRAIN initiative may boost Arizona's economy, role in neuroscience

2013-04-16T00:00:00Z Guest Column: BRAIN initiative may boost Arizona's economy, role in neuroscienceCarol Barnes Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

President Obama has asked Congress for $100 million next year to begin a major research initiative aimed at revolutionizing how we study the brain and accelerate the discovery of treatments for the more than 100 million people with 1,000 different brain diseases worldwide.

I view this announcement from several perspectives: as a past president of the largest society of brain scientists in the world (the Society for Neuroscience), as director of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Arizona, where we are studying how normal aging impacts brain function, and as associate director of the UA's BIO5 Institute, a model interdisciplinary think tank. Clearly, I have a vested interest.

There are many reasons to be cautious or even skeptical about this investment. Our country's economy is still fragile, and we have other difficult issues like poverty and hunger to solve. Is this the time to begin the world's most complex research project?

I believe we can't afford to wait. Progress has been made, but we need to understand how the brain works before we can begin to fix it. This is the great promise of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative - understanding the 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections in the brain well enough so that solutions for horrible diseases can be invented.

The scope and cost of the problems caused by brain dysfunction are staggering, and it is time to find solutions. In 2013, the U.S. will spend over $200 billion on Alzheimer's disease alone. The landmark BRAIN effort calls on companies, research universities, and nonprofits to work together across scientific disciplines to develop new strategies for unlocking the mysteries of the brain.

The brain is an extraordinary organ - it holds our memories and personal histories, it controls our movements, decisions and emotions. To fully comprehend disease, however, we must first understand how a healthy brain functions.

The field of neuroscience is interdisciplinary by its very nature, but the BRAIN initiative calls for more creative ways to forge collaborative, innovative partnerships across a range of disciplines to make significant progress in the next century on this challenge.

In fact, many of the people and technologies necessary to solve this puzzle already exist in Arizona. We have world-class scientists working together at the intersections of physics, nanotechnology, imaging, engineering, information technology, genomics and other rapidly emerging fields.

The state has already invested in, and nurtured, a strong culture of collaboration in its scientists - two great examples being the BIO5 Institute and the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium. Dr. Fernando Martinez was invited to the White House to help unveil the BRAIN initiative because BIO5 is a paradigm of the kind of interdisciplinary approach that is necessary to take on the BRAIN challenge.

The Alzheimer's Consortium extends across Arizona, with scientific and industry partnerships representing all of our state universities and a number of hospitals and research institutes. This group is led by Dr. Eric Reiman, a pioneer in applying state-of-the-art imaging technologies to detect Alzheimer's disease at its earliest stages and discovering therapeutic remedies to short circuit the progression of the disease.

We have three strong research universities with all the ingredients needed to play a significant role in this effort. Our world-class hospitals and innovative nonprofit organizations that already make strong contributions to brain science include Banner Alzheimer's Institute, Banner Sun Health Research Institute, the Barrow Neurological Institute, Critical Path Institute, the Mayo Clinic and TGen.

We also have entrepreneurial and biotech clusters that are eager to team with scientists to transform knowledge into products that solve grand challenges.

Arizona has the opportunity as a state to change the face of human health and stimulate a more vibrant economy by continuing to encourage and support collaborative efforts that contribute to the grand BRAIN challenge.

Carol Barnes is a Regents' Professor in the departments of psychology, neurology and neuroscience, and the Evelyn F. McKnight endowed chair for learning and memory in aging at the University of Arizona.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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