By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Wearable brain scanners and lasers that can turn hundreds of cells on and off were among 58 projects awarded $46 million in federal grants as part of President Obama's $100 million initiative to unlock the secrets of the human brain.
Launched in 2013, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is designed to give scientists greater insight into how the healthy brain works and a better understanding of what systems go awry in diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to schizophrenia.
"The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe. We’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding how it works — or, unfortunately, doesn't quite work when disorders and disease occur," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the federal agency distributing the $46 million in grants.
He likened the funding to his involvement in the early days of the Human Genome Project, the program that uncovered the precise sequence of 3 billion molecules common to the vast majority of humans' DNA.
The grants represent the NIH's portion of the BRAIN Initiative. It is one of four federal agencies committing more than $110 million in fiscal 2014 spending. In addition to the NIH, the agencies include the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Winners of the NIH grants were selected from a pool of more than 600 applicants. The grants will support the work of 100 investigators.
Most of the projects focus on developing new tools to help answer basic questions about the brain, including classifying the myriad cell types in the brain and developing new methods to record brain activity and integrate that into fundamental theories of the brain.
"There's a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make exploration possible. These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain," Collins said.
The White House is hosting a conference on the BRAIN Initiative later on Tuesday where new federal and private sector commitments will be unveiled.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Andrew Hay)