Brain diseases affect people of every age and are the most difficult to treat because the workings of the brain, despite considerable scientific advancement, largely remain a mystery. I’d like to thank you for launching a public initiative, One Mind For Research, to focus the health community on a 10-year program to speed the path to cures and treatments for brain diseases.
As a start, more research funding will help. Today, budget constraints are the biggest obstacle to doing meaningful neurological research. Finding funding for laboratories, research staff and equipment has never been more challenging.
Illustrating this funding challenge, the NIH reports that the average age of first-time investigators obtaining research funding has risen to 42 years of age. Compare that to the ages of the founders of Google or Apple. What are the odds that Steve Jobs would have stayed with computers if venture capital was completely inaccessible?
The good news is that a little money can go a long way in neurological research. A recent survey by the Brain Research Foundation found that every dollar spent on their seed grant program—grants for early stage research — result in more than eight times that amount in additional research. Seed grants allow researchers to perform the necessary experiments to test an idea and obtain results that can be incorporated into a larger grant. In time, this research leads to major new understandings of how the brain works, supporting work designed to treat a myriad of brain-related illnesses and issues such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and autism.
Part of any comprehensive national strategy on neuroscience research must be a well-funded seed grant program. Technology-enabled research has accelerated the path to discovery, but young scientists and innovators can’t use that technology to test their ideas for free. Seed grants literally open up locked laboratory doors.
Without access to seed grants, scientists move on to greener fields. Getting unique, sometimes risky projects off the ground is how science is advanced.
In recent years we’ve seen talented researchers relocate to China where funding is more abundant. If this trend were to continue and grow it would mean that the U.S. is both losing homegrown talent and not attracting foreign talent—both have been instrumental to our preeminence in neuroscience, similar to space travel—which means ex-U.S. companies will possess superior innovation assets.
Today, the largest unmet need in neuroscience research is our ability to fund even more promising science. The risk of any high profile research initiative is that it could act as a magnet and draw limited research dollars on a small handful of targets, and make it difficult—if not impossible—for other important work to secure funding.
The potential that a public initiative that educates the lay population about brain illness and works to broaden dialogue among researchers and stakeholders is too great to pass up. If the only achievement is to open up new funding for seed grants so that younger researchers are encouraged to do their work in U.S. laboratories, our ability to address brain related issues will be profoundly improved. Thank you for taking this momentous first step.
Terre A. Constantine, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Brain Research Foundation