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What it does 

In April, 2013 President Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. The BRAIN Initiative seeks to accelerate the development and application of new technologies to produce dynamic images of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought. These technologies will open new doors to explore how the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior.

The initiative has seven priority areas:

  1. Discovering diversity- Identify and provide experimental access to the different brain cell types to determine their roles in health and disease.
  2. Maps at multiple scales- Generate circuit diagrams that vary in resolution from synapses to the whole brain.
  3. The brain in action- Produce a dynamic picture of the functioning brain by developing and applying improved methods for large-scale monitoring of neural activity.
  4. Demonstrating causality- Link brain activity to behavior with precise interventional tools that change neural circuit dynamics.
  5. Identifying fundamental principles- Produce conceptual foundations for understanding the biological basis of mental processes through development of new theoretical and data analysis tools.
  6. Advancing human neuroscience- Develop innovative technologies to understand the human brain and treat its disorders; create and support integrated human brain research networks.

From BRAIN Initiative to the brain- Integrate new technological and conceptual approaches produced in goals one through six to discover how dynamic patterns of neural activity are transformed into cognition, emotion, perception, and action in health and disease.

Relevant Science 
  • The human brain has 86 billion neurons along with other cells that make more than 100 trillion connections.
  • 100 million Americans suffer from devastating brain disorders at some point in their lives – neurodevelopmental disorders (such as autism), mood and anxiety disorders (such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder), neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases), among many others (such as epilepsy and stroke). Knowing more about the brain has the potential to improve many areas of human health.

At present, neurotechnologies and brain research typically fall into two areas:

  • Using imaging techniques such as fMRI, PET and CT scans to study large scale brain structures and activation for processes, actions and behaviors; and
  • Studying the processes of neurons at a single cellular level, focusing on synapses and pathways which inhibit or provoke processes or actions.

Scientists involved in the Initiative cite need for research and technologies that can fill the gap between these micro and macrocosmic views of the brain, such as technologies that can record the interactions of hundreds of thousands of neurons at once, to understand the overall mechanisms of the brain. 

Endorsements & Opposition 

There is much debate about the complexity and logistics of the BRAIN Initiative.


  • Numerous academic and research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and federal agencies have declared their support by investing in the Initiative.
  • National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel has called the BRAIN Initiative “a fantastic opportunity...Everyone is recognizing that we’re facing this profound public health challenge around brain disorders. For us to make progress, we need much better technologies.”
  • In response to critiques about the costs for the Initiative, supporters have cited a government-commissioned economic impact study on the Human Genome Project (HGP), which found that the return on investment was $141 for every $1 of federal HGP investment.


  • Some academics, such as Emory University neuroscientist Donald Stein, criticized the Initiative at inception: “I think the monies could be better spent by first figuring out what needs to be measured and then figuring out the most appropriate means to measure them….In my mind, the technology ought to follow the concepts rather than the other way around.”
Primary Author 
Rachel Zacharias
Elise Demeter, PhD, Allison Roder, PhD Candidate & Aubrey Incorvaia, MPP
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol, “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative” available at (5/13/2016).