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Can Obama’s BRAIN Initiative Reduce Soaring Dementia Care Costs?

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonApril 8, 2013

The White House’s newly proposed BRAIN Initiative promises funding for much-needed research, but how will it help advance the treatment of dementia and rising dementia care costs?

Both the costs and the number of people with dementia are projected to more than double by 2040, according to a rigorous new study led by the RAND Corporation and financed by the federal government. Though the latest estimates are more conservative than previous data released by the Alzheimer’s Association, they’re still alarming. A New York Times article quoted Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging: “I don’t know of any other disease predicting such a huge increase,” he said, noting that an aging baby boomer population would further exacerbate the issue.

The long-term costs of dementia—both economic and emotional—are a clear sign that we as a society need to step up our efforts at dementia research and treatment. And the federal government has responded, with legislation like last year’s National Alzheimer’s Project Act and the newly-announced BRAIN Initiative. National-level efforts like these may enable more researchers to attack the looming problem of dementia care and its ballooning costs.

Cutting-Edge Brain Research and the Study of Dementia

Last May saw the creation of a national plan to address the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s: the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which shows that dementia care is now a real priority in the national health conversation. And, just last week, President Obama announced a new proposal called the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, described by the White House as “a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind” (NPR). The hope is that his initiative will trigger even more interest in innovations such as early detection methods, and provide some much-needed funding for ongoing efforts to map the human brain.

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Indeed, we have been making some progress in the form of clinical trials for new pharmaceuticals, and we’ve improved early detection of cognitive impairment and biomarkers for Alzheimer’s, according to a recent segment on PBS Newshour. With a starting budget of $100 million for the first year, scientists hope that the BRAIN Initiative will bring further attention to the issue, and spur the formation of a concrete plan for research into the human mind.

The Facts Behind the BRAIN Initiative

If we can add to our detail-level knowledge of how the brain functions, say proponents of the BRAIN Initiative, we will gain further insight into diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy—and researchers will be able to spearhead a whole new range of technological developments to help with detection and treatment. However, many experts also stress that there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the BRAIN Initiative. It’s a good start, but a lot of brain specialists are skeptical, wondering how exactly it’s going to change the current track in neurological research. After all, it’s been decades since scientists have been able to really start studying the brain in detail, and many breakthroughs have already emerged, notes an NPR report. Perhaps, some say, the benefit of this latest proposal will be more in terms of PR for brain research and Obama’s science agenda.

David Hovda, who runs the brain injury research center at UCLA, says “I think we’re promising too much. I don’t think it’s going to be the big breakthrough that people think it will be.” Similarly, other experts worry that $100 million won’t be enough to address the plan the president has outlined, and they fear not enough money will be allotted in the future for ongoing research efforts. Nevertheless, the potential for Obama’s proposal has been enough to get lots of people excited, hoping that more ambitious goals can be set and more substantive research accomplished.

Beyond the BRAIN: New Discoveries in Dementia Research

On NPR’s Science Friday last week, NIH Director Francis Collins acknowledged that the BRAIN Initiative is just one part of the effort to map the human brain and jump-start new avenues of research. “This $100 million is, after all, about one percent—the NIH part of it—of what we’re already spending on neuroscience,” he said.

So what else are scientists around the world doing to advance the brain science of dementia? The EU has a similar aim to Obama’s BRAIN Initiative; last year they announced the Human Brain Project, a detailed ten-year plan that proposes a collaborate effort to use new technologies in brain research and mapping. On the U.S. side of the pond, innovative competitions like the SXSW Accelerator program help showcase emerging technologies like this year’s winning Neurotrack, a computer-based test of visual cognition that claims to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease years before symptoms appear (The Raw Story). If the BRAIN Initiative passes—regardless of whether the motivation is political or altruistic—increasing the visibility of brain research may help focus much-needed attention and funding on future efforts to address dementia.

What’s your opinion on the BRAIN Initiative? Do you think it will have a real effect on our understanding of the human mind, or is it just PR? Let us know in the comments below.

Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson
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