Klobuchar, panel talk BRAIN Initiative

The research effort works to map the brain to prevent and cure diseases.

Hailey Colwell


U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar led a panel discussion Tuesday about increasing research for curing brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy and Parkinson’s.

The panel spoke to a full conference room about the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, a national push to prevent and cure brain disorders by mapping the human brain.

President Barack Obama announced the 10-year, $100 million BRAIN Initiative earlier this month, following his call for investment in job-creating scientific research in his February State of the Union Address.

In Minnesota, more than 189,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism or epilepsy, Klobuchar said. Autism costs the nation about $137 billion per year, and Alzheimer’s disease is expected to cost more than a trillion dollars by 2050.

Funding research initiatives like this will not only impact people with neurological disorders and their families, Klobuchar said, but will also create jobs and lower the costs of these disorders.

“We have to see this as a long-term investment,” she said.

As part of the BRAIN Initiative Working Group, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research are developing technologies to map circuits connecting different parts of the brain. This can help scientists understand neurological disorders, said radiology professor Kamil Ugurbil.

In a time when federal funding is difficult to come by, the BRAIN Initiative is important to the University, he said. Looming sequestration cuts could deprive the University of millions of dollars in federal research grants.

Despite advancements the University’s made in brain research, Ugurbil said there’s much work to be done.

“The road that we have to travel is really immense compared to where we are,” he said.

The impact of research

The initiative has the potential to change the way diseases are diagnosed and treated, according to representatives from advocacy organizations on the panel.

Because Parkinson’s disease has a 20 percent misdiagnosis rate, developing technology to better map the brain would make it easier to detect, said Paul Blom, president of the National Parkinson Foundation’s Minnesota chapter. Mapping would also help scientists identify the cells they need to focus on to develop surgical treatments, he said.

“If we could see which parts of the brain are active in real time as a neurologist observes symptoms,” he said, “we could better understand where to target therapy.”

Brain mapping research would also help Alzheimer’s patients receive accurate and timely diagnoses, as only about half of people with the disease are diagnosed in primary care, said Michelle Barclay, vice president of program services for the Alzheimer’s Association.

“If we can understand how the pathology progresses,” she said, “then we can identify people before symptoms appear.”

Epilepsy is the nation’s fourth most common neurological disorder, said Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. Because its cause is unknown in about 70 percent of cases, it’s “tremendously impacted” by research, she said.

About 21,000 children in Minnesota public schools are diagnosed with some form of autism, said Jonah Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, and a deeper understanding of the brain could help people with the disorder live normal lives.

“For the millions of individuals and all of their family members who are impacted by autism,” he said, “it would just be an incredible thing that would improve lives for all of us.”