In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-sponsored report "Convergence: The Future of Health," American academic leaders outlined the forthcoming impact of the Convergence in Healthcare revolution on the United States healthcare industry. Best defined as an intersectional approach to research between members of the life science, physical science, mathematics, computing and chemistry sectors, the Convergence in Healthcare movement aims to fundamentally change the way scientists make life-changing medical discoveries for the purpose of increasing the rate of innovation and improving global health.
Though the movement has many obstacles to overcome before it becomes the rule rather than the exception, there are several government-funded initiatives that are already performing convergent healthcare research and demonstrating the potential impact of the movement. Listed below are five things to know about one of these pioneering programs, the BRAIN Initiative.
It was established by the Obama Administration in 2013
The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was first announced by then-President Barack Obama in April 2013. Calling it "the next great American project," Obama stated that the purpose of the BRAIN Initiative was to give "scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember." He called the potential power of such knowledge "transformative."
The BRAIN Initiative has five primary goals
Per the mission statement outlined on its website, the BRAIN Initiative’s goals are to advance neurotechnologies, to facilitate dynamic imaging, to explore brain functionality, to link function and behavior and to advance consumer applications. Its ultimate mission lies in conducting groundbreaking research to discover more about what is arguably the human body’s most complex, yet least understood, organ in an effort to find better ways to treat the illnesses and diseases that affect it.
A collection of federal and non-federal groups collaborate to further the initiative’s work
Evidence of the BRAIN Initiative’s commitment to the Convergence in Healthcare movement can be seen in the establishment of a group of federal and non-federal entities that have committed to work alongside one another across sectors and interdisciplinary lines to spur innovation. Federal BRAIN Initiative participants include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and the US Food and Drug Administration. Non-federal participants come from a variety of sectors, including private, nonprofit and education. Some of the most notable non-federal participants in the BRAIN Initiative include the Kavli Foundation, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, Google, General Electric and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
In just five years, the initiative has already made a number of transformative achievements
With the support of more than $559 million in NIH funding and the work of more than 500 scientists since 2013, the BRAIN Initiative has accomplished much in the way of creating new tools and technologies for improving the medical community’s understanding of the brain. The development of innovative tools is a key step toward ultimately treating some of the most widely diagnosed illnesses of the mind, including diseases such as Alzheimer’s and depression.
One of the most notable tools to come from this research is the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network, a convergent effort that incorporates data collected by multiple laboratories to create a comprehensive catalog of the brain’s diverse cell types, including the cells that support neurons. The groups supported by BRAIN Initiative grants are currently working to identify the anatomy, molecular makeup and function of the brain’s various cells in hopes of curating a helpful guide to allow scientists to better understand the way brain diseases and disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder occur and function.
Another promising development resulting from BRAIN Initiative funding is the BrainGate project, which focuses on assisting patients with spinal injuries or those who have had illnesses that cause paralysis. Via small microelectrodes implanted into the brain, scientists developed a technology that allows these patients to control the movement of a computer cursor through thought. Though still in the early stages of research and development, the BrainGate project has also shown some use in control of the movement of advanced prosthetic limbs as well as the manipulation of communication devices. Ultimately, scientists from the BrainGate project hope to use this same technology to allow patients with paralysis to naturally control limbs.
The MIT report considers the BRAIN Initiative to be a modest but promising standard for others to follow in the pursuit of Convergence in Healthcare
Among the many recommendations that "Convergence: The Future of Health" suggests for the growth of the Convergence in Healthcare movement is for members of the philanthropic community to put a greater focus on the establishment of public-private partnerships similar to the BRAIN Initiative. The BRAIN Initiative naturally facilitates Convergence in Healthcare by bringing groups with different scientific backgrounds together to work toward the common goal of improving human health. On such a large scale, increasing the number of public-private partnerships dedicated to this same ideal could help drive the Convergence in Healthcare movement forward and accelerate the rate of innovation — to the benefit of all.