CMU unfolds BrainHub research effort

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If the medical focus of the 20th century was infections, Thomas R. Insel said the 21st century focus is incommunicable diseases, with a big spotlight on brain disorders.

And research finally is turning attention to arguably the biggest mystery of science: How does our brain work?

“The world has discovered the brain,” said Dr. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “This is a hot topic. The public is intrigued by the brain, and understanding the mysteries of why we do what we do. It is the question of the decade.”

Carnegie Mellon University has gotten on board with creation of its BrainHub — a public-private research collaboration based at the university and involving the University of Pittsburgh and several universities worldwide.

Dr. Insel was the keynote speaker Tuesday during an event in CMU’s University Center, where university President Subra Suresh announced creation of BrainHub, with the goal of making CMU “a major hub for brain research.”

Through BrainHub, CMU will devote considerable “intellectual horsepower” to the challenge of unlocking the secrets of brain circuitry and function, which should help explain brain diseases and disorders. BrainHub has commitments for $75 million in funding over five years from sources that include the Hillman Foundation, Mr. Suresh said.

About 300 people attended the announcement and Dr. Insel’s address, followed by a panel discussion about research goals and trends involving researchers from the universities involved in BrainHub.

Mr. Suresh said it became apparent during his first year as CMU president that talented researchers campus-wide were doing important brain research, leading to the idea of establishing the hub. The network also will include the universities of Warwick and Oxford in the United Kingdom, Sun Yat-sen University in China and the Indian Institute of Science.

As baby boomers age, the cost of and concerns about brain-related disabilities heighten, he said

Alcohol and addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, dementia and Parkinson’s disease, among others, already exact a $1.1 trillion annual toll for health care and other costs in the United States. One in two people 85 or older stand to get Alzheimer’s disease.

One of every 68 children develop autism spectrum disorders. Sixteen million people have depression and every 20 seconds someone in the world commits suicide. Alcoholism and addiction are the leading causes of death for people 15 to 49 years old, he said.

New brain imaging techniques, better methods to collect and analyze large sets of data, computational mathematics and expertise in computer science are needed to understand brain architecture and function. But Dr. Insel said the NIMH lacked grant applications this year from engineers, computer scientists and computational mathematicians involved in brain science. That is despite the $40 million available through the BRAIN Initiative, which President Barack Obama announced in April 2013. Those fields historically have been CMU strengths.

“Brain disorders are the leading cause of disabilities in the nation,” Dr. Insel said. “Tools are needed to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action. In the next 10 to 12 years, we want to map the circuits of the brain, measure fluctuating electrical and chemical patterns within those circuits, and understand how it helps to generate thoughts and actions.”

Research funding through the BRAIN Initiative is designed to revolutionize our understanding of the brain, with total research funding expected to reach $4.5 billion by 2025.

With that enticement, Pitt announced in January that it was creating a Brain Institute with a focus of unlocking the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function.

David Templeton: or 412-263-1578. First Published August 26, 2014 3:06 PM

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