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Phil Sahm

Phone: 801-581-2517

Sep 30, 2014 3:44 PM

Light bulb with brain on top

(SALT LAKE CITY)—The University of Utah (U of U) was highlighted Tuesday at a White House citing citing academic, corporate and private organizations making major commitments to neuroscience research in alignment with the goals of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative.

The goal of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, announced in April 2013, is to revolutionize understanding of the human brain to help researchers find ways to treat, cure and even prevent brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury (TBI). When he announced the initiative, President Obama committed $4.5 billion to the project. The University of Utah was cited at the White House confernece for committing $10 million to its own Neuroscience Initiative, launched in the fall of 2013, which aims to align basic, translational and clinical research in neural diseases that affect Utahns and people worldwide. 

University Vice President for Research Thomas N. Parks, Ph.D., and Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy Monica Vetter, Ph.D., represented the University at the White House announcement. The University was well-represented by one other person at the event — Daria Nesterovich, a first-year graduate student in neural engineering in the Department of Bionengineering, was asked to speak to open the conference. In her remarks, Nestrovich credited President Obama's BRAIN Initiative with increasing funding for brain-related research and with spurring her interest in obtaining a Ph.D. in neural engineering.

Both the BRAIN Initiative and the University’s Neuroscience Initiative will spur advancements to help millions of people with brain diseases and disorders, according to Parks.

“Diseases of the brain and spinal cord cause many deaths and are responsible for more than 25 percent of the time that Americans spend being disabled,” says Parks, a former Chair of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University. “Advances in medical care come from research, and the University of Utah’s Neurosciences Initiative will engage its researchers to find better ways to prevent and treat such disorders as depression, dementia, addiction and paralysis.”

In Oct. 2013, Vivian S. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., University of Utah senior vice president for health sciences, announced the multidisciplinary neuroscience initiative and is now announcing commitment of $10 million for the project, including money to ramp up a strategic planning effort, renovate space for a neuroscience hub, provide seed funding for department and colleges, conduct symposia, recruit new faculty and other needs. Vetter chaired the planning committee, which included Parks and faculty from across the health sciences and the Department of Bioengineering. The group recommended focusing research on:

  • Neural injury and recovery
  • Mood and behavior disorders (autism, depression, addiction, etc.)
  • Neurodegeneration (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Epilepsy and headache

With this investment, the University is rolling out the initiative and is positioned to make substantial contributions to neuroscience and the BRAIN Initiative, according to Vetter.

“There is great opportunity to capitalize on our strengths in diverse areas such as computer science, bioengineering, materials science and chemistry and then apply these to fundamental problems in clinical and basic neuroscience that affect the people of Utah and beyond,” she says. “We have the expertise in this area to make real advances in neuroscience to study how the brain works and is organized.”

Tuesday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that numerous universities, foundations and businesses have committed $270 million to align with the BRAIN Initiative’s goals. Those funds augment $100 million budgeted for research to federal agencies this year. Federal agencies involved in the initiative include the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Department of Defense), National Science Foundation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (Office of the Director of National Intelligence).

Along with the University of Utah, Scholastic institutions committing money to support the BRAIN Initiative include University of California Berkeley, The Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University and the University of Texas. Other organizations and corporations involved are the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kavil Foundation, Allen Institute for Brain Science, General Electric Corp., GlaxoSmithKline and Google.

The University of Utah has had a role in the BRAIN Initiative from its inception. Richard A. Normann, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology/Visual Sciences and Professor of Bioengineering, is among 15 scientists chosen to serve on the advisory committee for the initiative.

Another of the University’s researchers, Matt Wachowiak, Ph.D., USTAR Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, has received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to lead an interdisciplinary team of researchers developing innovative brain mapping tools. The group plans to engineer a recording system using nanoscale electrodes to measure electrical or magnetic cells generated when specific neurons fire.

brain initiative