Lt. Col. (Dr.) Wilmer Jones, 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group vascular surgeon, reviews medical images at Joint Base Balad, Iaq on April 13, 2009.
DILIA AYALA/U.S. AIR FORCE
By Leo Shane III
Stars and Stripes
Published: April 2, 2013
WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday unveiled a $100 million research initiative to better understand how the human brain works, a bold undertaking with potentially life-changing ramifications for troops with debilitating combat injuries.
“Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home … That’s what we’re imagining. That’s what we’re hoping for,” President Barack Obama said at the project announcement, before a crowd of neurology scientists and surgeons. “They’re ambitious goals, but they’re achievable.”
Officials said the new effort — a “grand challenge” along the lines of the moon race and the human genome project — was mentioned by Obama in his State of the Union address and is designed as a far-reaching partnership.
Medical schools and private firms will work alongside government institutes to develop a map of neural pathways and chemical structures in the brain. Tracking trillions of microscopic mental activities will require new computer programs, data storage systems and analytical approaches.
Half of the $100 million will go the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the goal of “demonstrating breakthrough applications” based on the new findings. Director Arati Prabhakar said her agency’s work in the field was prompted by the injuries of returning troops and the promise of medical breakthroughs that could improve their lives.
According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 250,000 troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries. That doesn’t account for tens of thousands more whose brain injuries stay undiagnosed for months after the return home. Department of Veterans Affairs researchers say as many as one in four veterans might have suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving overseas.
DARPA researchers are looking at regenerating processing systems within the brain, in an effort to help reverse memory loss, mood swings and decreased brain function from battlefield injuries. The new effort, Prabhakar said, will help move that work ahead.
The White House has assembled a “dream team” of top neurological experts to develop a plan of attack for the project, with the $100 million in fiscal 2014 as the first installment of a multi-year funding effort.
Dr. Ali Rezai, director of Ohio State University’s Neuroscience Program, called the White House effort a significant step forward for the research field.
“The frontier here is very large,” he said. “Cancer and heart disease knowledge has developed nicely over the years. But the brain is still very much unknown.”
He said researchers know how traumatic brain injury can affect speech and memory, but better maps of neural pathways and chemical interactions hold the promise of cures and preventive care for those wounds.
For example, more knowledge of how different parts of the brain interact could help predict which troops are more susceptible to PTSD or concussions. Learning how to fix different parts of the brain could restore wounded troops’ ability to speak or walk.
Prabhakar said the work could also produce dramatic results with other battlefield injuries, such as helping amputees control advanced prosthetics with their minds.
Obama said he hopes the work will also produce new treatments for individuals battling epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
“We have a chance to improve the lives of not just millions, but billions of people on this planet,” he said. “But it’s going to require a serious effort, a sustained effort.”