A National Focus on Neuroscience

Brian Barnett

Neuroscience and neurotechnology have the potential to greatly improve our society, but the field needs significant investment in the form of a National Neurotechnology Initiative. We need a federal initiative that will bolster basic research and technology development for the entire field of neuroscience. There is a discrepancy between our neuroscientists’ efforts to study the brain and our available knowledge on the subject. Last month, thousands of neuroscientists came to our nation’s capital to attend the Society for Neuroscience annual conference to report on their research. During the conference, Nature put out an issue focusing on the difficulty in understanding depression and other mental disorders. We have so many great scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the brain, and large portions of them are performing research to find cures for neurological disorders and disease. We put millions of dollars into research and we have a cohort of capable neuroscientists, so why are we still so ineffectual in our efforts to help those in need? The answer is that neuroscience is a complex field that currently has insufficient funding and resources to address all of its issues.

More than 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression, and as many as two thirds of those who commit suicide are afflicted by the condition. Hundreds of other neurological conditions affect our population across all age groups. We are still using drugs and technology from the 1950’s to address mental disorders and perform research. We develop new methodologies like cognitive behavioral therapy and we can’t explain the mechanisms by which they help patients. These observations plainly show that we are not doing enough to invest in neuroscience and provide our researchers with the tools and technologies to better understand the brain. Unfortunately, there is not one single problem area or deficiency that we can target to improve the situation. To succeed, we need to address a fundamentally incomplete understanding of all mechanisms and scales of brain function, from intercellular communication to the cognitive bases of behavior.

The solution is a large, long-term federal investment in neuroscience research and technology. Basic research, technological advances, and industry development will improve our scientific knowledge about the brain and give us methods and instruments for effecting positive change. We will be able to cure diseases and disorders when we understand the brain’s basic mechanisms, languages, and systems. We will share and combine findings from separate laboratories and research centers when we incorporate big data and IT infrastructure. We will create positive feedback loops where scientific knowledge informs novel technology development, and this technology enables entirely new methodologies for research investigations.

Our neuroscientists want to present research that truly demonstrates our essential understanding of the brain when they attend conferences. Our scientific journals want to publish great news about improvements to our health and well-being. Our innovators want to develop neurotechnologies that will better all of society. In light of the President’s BRAIN Initiative, national scientific journals’ coverage of mental illness, and an ever-growing national research society, the spotlight has never shone brighter on the field of neuroscience. The inspiration and motivation is readily apparent, so the only missing piece is a bold federal initiative that makes progress in neuroscience and neurotechnology a reality.