On April 2, President Barack Obama formally announced an initiative designed to help researchers better investigate the complex structures and functions of the brain at the White House, a move that could have immediate implications for research initiatives at Georgetown.

The $100 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative is the government’s largest spending project since the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project, which began in 1990 and achieved its goal of sequencing the entire human gene by 2003.

But according to Howard Federoff, executive vice president for health sciences and executive dean of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, theincreased funding associated with the BRAIN Initiative will not be enough to significantly counteract the sequester, across-the-board federal funding cuts.

“I think the sequester was, unfortunately, politics at its worst. It was not strategic, it was not thinking about the future of the nation and it was a failure of a bipartisan effort to come together and really do something that was in the interest of us as a society,” Federoff said. “The sequester will have a definable and demonstrative impact on science and funding, as it will curtail funding that has already become extremely competitive, even more than it was historically.”

Federoff added that he is even more worried about the long-term impact on the scientific community.

“It puts us at risk of losing a whole generation of scientists and clinician-scientists,” Federoff said. “The sequester will have been one of the worst things that will have ever been done to science, assuming that it isn’t rectified. … The BRAIN Initiative is a small and wonderful jewel, but I think it’s ultimately inadequate to erase a decade of what has been damaging policy toward science.”

Nonetheless, Federoff expressed optimism about the benefits of the BRAIN Initiative to Georgetown, a school with a strong commitment to neuroscience research, most of which is anchored in the Georgetown University Medical Center. GUMC has become competitively positioned to receive grants in neuroscience in the last few years, according to Federoff.

Roughly a quarter of researchers who are investigating the functional imaging of the brain at the molecular level could potentially qualify for funding from the BRAIN Initiative, Federoff said.

“The probability of success [fully receiving funding] can change dramatically based on who the competition is,” Federoff said. “But the bottom line is, although we don’t know what the numbers will look like, the folks at Georgetown are well-prepared.”

Federoff indicated that much of that success was due to the 2012 creation of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery in collaboration with MedStar National Rehabilitation Network. The center focuses on the ways in which the brain learns and develops and how those processes might be helpful in treating stroke, traumatic injury, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other brain-related ailments.

Elissa Newport, a psychologist and neurologist who is director of the CBPR, added that no specific details have been released about what the initiative will fund.

“We all hope for a general increase in funding for biomedical research and for research on the brain in particular,” she wrote in an email. “Our ability to speak and listen, our memories, our ability to learn — these are at the heart of what makes us who we are, and all can be lost forever from the diseases that are increasing so rapidly across the nation.”

Federoff said that federal funding was a crucial part of the research process for the CBPR, as well as for individual researchers.

“Georgetown is a soft-money environment, which means that investigators need to secure outside funding before they can go ahead with their projects,” Federoff said. “Given where we are as a university and as a country, I think this issue of extramural funding couldn’t be more important … than it is at Georgetown.”

According to an online database of National Institutes of Health grants, Georgetown received approximately $51 million from the institutes in fiscal year 2012, but that figure has been in a downward trend since the university had about $69.4 million in NIH funding in fiscal year 2010. The vast majority of the individual grants are small, totaling between $100,000 and $400,000.

But the NIH has limited the number and amount of grants awarded due to the sequester, under which its budget will be reduced by over $1 billion. The NIH’s budget this year has been cut 10 percent compared to last year’s budget.

Federoff said that researchers will soon feel the effects of the cuts. The acceptance rate for successful grant applications, which are already extremely competitive at around 10 percent, will go down.

“What happens is, when they designate projects like this, it gets more competitive,” Federoff said. “We’re in a period [during which] people are trying to do whatever is necessary to maintain their laboratories.”

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