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Johns Hopkins part of $100 million initiative to study the brain

Johns Hopkins University will participate in what President Barack Obama called "the next great American project," creating an institute for neuroscience research aimed at mapping the brain and perhaps finding cures for its many mysterious ailments.

The institute is one of three that will be opened as part of a $100 million collaborative effort, funded largely by one of the private investors behind the Obama Administration's BRAIN Initiative, aimed at developing a better understanding of how the human brain works.

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When Obama announced BRAIN — short for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — in 2013, he said he wanted to "unlock the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

The Hopkins partnership with the California-based Kavli Foundation was announced Thursday during a Capital Hill briefing. It will increase funding for basic neuroscience research in hopes that figuring out how the brain works can lead to breakthroughs in treatments, or even cures, for Alzheimer's, autism and other brain disorders that have long stumped scientists.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, whose father-in-law recently died from complications of Alzheimer's, said the collaboration marks an important step in "research that will help build a unified picture of the brain with far-reaching implications for understanding human behavior and treating diseases that plague so many."

Hopkins and Kavli will invest a combined $20 million to establish the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute that will open in 2016.

The money will be set up as an endowment to fund research for years into the future. The Kavli funding comes with no restrictions as to how the money can be spent aside from in the interest of neuroscience research. Government-funded research often comes with strict requirements that some scientists feel can stifle innovation.

"This is the research that will help provide the essential knowledge to find the cures, discover prevention strategies and find new ways to deal with the often tragic results of brain traumas," said Robert W. Conn, president and CEO of the Kavli Foundation, during the briefing. "This will enable many of the best scientists in the field to drive that engine of discovery."

The Hopkins institute will focus initially on integrating the fields of neuroscience, engineering and data science. It will examine how humans perceive and undestand the world and think about it. It will examine how the brain develops and functions, and how it can change in response to the environment, behavior, emotions, thinking and even injury.

"We fully expect over time that new areas of interest and work will emerge and they will follow the strongest leads that will lead to new insights and breakthroughs," Conn said.

The new funding will allow Hopkins, home to one of the first neuroscience programs, to take its already groundbreaking research to a higher level by bringing together different departments within the university that don't normally work together, said Richard L. Huganir, the inaugural director of the new institute.

The institute's staff of 45 will come from 14 academic departments in the schools of engineering, arts and sciences, public health and medicine, plus the university's Applied Physics Laboratory.

"Studying the brain includes everything from molecules and receptors to circuits in the brain, human brain imaging and how the brain behaves," Huganir said in a phone interview. "So how do you go from molecules to behavior? You can't really study that in one lab."

As part of the broader $100 million BRAIN effort, Kavli also will help fund the creation of new neuroscience institutes at The Rockefeller University in New York City and the University of California San Francisco.

The new institutes join four existing Kavli neuroscience institutes at Columbia University, University of California San Diego, Yale University and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, each of which also will share in the $100 million effort.

Those insititutes are part of a larger network of 20 Kavli-funded institutes for scientific research in such fields as astrophysics, nanoscience and theoretical physics.

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The Kavli Foundation was founded in December 2000 by technology and real estate billionaire Fred Kavli, who passed away in late 2013. A Norwegian immigrant and engineer by training, Kavli founded Kavlico Corp., which became the world's largest suppliers of automotive, aeronautic and industrial sensors.

The foundation's mission is dedicated to "advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work."

When Obama launched the BRAIN initiative in early 2013, Kavli committed his foundation's funds to helping fund the effort.

Also at Thursday's briefing, the National Institutes of Health announced $38 million of separate funding for the initiative, which will go as grant money to 131 investigators working at 125 institutions around the world.

Thursday's announcements were welcome by politicians on both sides.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, who participated in brain research earlier in his medical career, said the research eventually could bring relief to the millions of families who care for people with brain disorders.

"Beyond the dollar cost is the human cost of these brain disorders," Harris said.

Many advancements have been made in neuroscience in the past 25 years and this could speed up the pace of even more discoveries, scientists and others said.

"This public/private partnership will help support the development and application of innovative technologies that can help map the human brain," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski. "With today's announcement, we will help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders so we can better treat, prevent, cure and help families in need."

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