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Viewpoints: California can lead the way on brain research

There is a compelling need for major research efforts in neuroscience. Anyone who has been affected – either personally or through family and friends – by conditions such as traumatic brain injury, autism, schizophrenia, depression, stroke or Alzheimer’s disease knows all too well the tragedy and feeling of helplessness that comes with running up against the limitations of current treatment options. The human and economic cost of these afflictions is staggering.

Recognizing that need are the recently launched European Human Brain Project and the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, both of which are conceived as decadelong programs. In June, California was the first state to enact its own brain research program – Cal-BRAIN.

A fuller understanding of the brain’s functions will immediately help diagnose and treat psychiatric disease, neurodegenerative disease, traumatic brain injury, depression and stroke, as well as develop more effective neural prosthetic devices. The ability to detect and report on biological processes in living subjects and in real time will also be broadly applicable to many other systems of the body and for such diseases as cancer or diabetes. For technology itself, the concepts and tools emanating from this project will have a broad range of engineering and environmental applications where sensitive, miniature and intelligent systems are critical.

As in all major issues, controversy exists, and both the BRAIN Initiative and the European Human Brain Project have come in for criticisms. Among them is the lack of a comprehensive theory of brain function upon which to base the research. There have been efforts at brain theories over the years, but the fact that there is no widely accepted theory is not for lack of trying; it is for lack of adequate data. First we have to better see how the brain works, then we can develop more powerful theories. Indeed, many of the efforts at theory have pointed to the need for looking at the physiology of brain-wide events in a more complete and detailed way, which is currently not possible with existing technologies.

Overcoming this technological hurdle is the goal of the BRAIN Initiative and Cal-BRAIN, which the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown established to accelerate the state’s role. Cal-BRAIN will create a new scientific field and train a new cadre of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers, positioning California to pioneer the new sector of neurotechnology.

Thanks to research advances in neuroscience, physics, chemistry and engineering – many of which have come from the premier research institutions in California – we can take an integrated and systematic approach to developing the brain tools we need. And the possibility exists that a new set of exciting neurotechnologies can be created in the next decade.

Because our state led in foundational research and sparked the BRAIN Initiative, we are poised to lead the nation in the realization of this important goal. We have enough information to begin moving forward and we must. Now is the time, and California is the place to make it happen.