Era of the Brain at 2014 NIH Research Festival

Monday, January 5, 2015

The NIH Research Festival always has a strong theme running through it, from “Bench-to-Bedside” in 2002 and “Chromosomes in Modern Biology and Medicine” in 2007 to “The NIH at 125: Today's Discoveries, Tomorrow's Cures” in 2012. The year 2014 was no different, but it marked the first time that the Festival was focused on a single organ within the human body: the brain.

In the opening plenary session, Dr. Francis Collins, NIH Director, provided an overview of a broad range of high priority research activities that the NIH—both intramural and extramural—is undertaking in support of The BRAIN Initiative. What struck me was the opportunity that exists within the unique structure of the IRP to really embrace some of the enormous questions that exist in neuroscience.

  • BASIC RESEARCH – As every NIH Research Festival shows, we have very strong basic science capabilities within both the extramural and intramural programs. Bench science is the foundation of any scientific enterprise. So, when trying to understand how 86 billion neurons and other cells make 100 trillion connections, basic research is clearly required.
  • DATA MINING – In 2014, we all recognized the importance of data. The data generated by The BRAIN Initiative can only be described as “big,” hence Collins’ reference to the “BD2K” or “Big Data to Knowledge” project. As we peer deeper into the workings of the brain, the information we uncover along the way will be vast. The B2DK project aims to “mine” that data for knowledge and insights that take us forwards and into the clinic.
  • TRANSLATIONAL RESEARCH – Ah, that buzzword of researchers everywhere. And yet, Collins shines a light on the importance of translational science when he points out that of the 5000 or so molecular diseases we know of, only 500 currently have therapies. Huh. Bit of a gap there. And with brain disorders—neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative—predicted to be the most disabling and most costly chronic diseases in the 21st century, it’s places like our very own NIH Clinical Center that can help us close that gap.
  • WORKFORCE TALENT – What do all three of the above require in order to be successful? People. Not just any people, but passionate scientists who are willing to think big, take calculated risks, and collaborate outside of their comfort zone. The very essence of the IRP.

With the audacious goals of The Human BRAIN Project being compared to the scale and undertaking of the Human Genome Project, it’s no surprise that Collins has a vision for the IRP. Taking inspiration from American architect Daniel Burnham, he suggested the following:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans…and aim high in hope and work.”

Category: Science