A Meeting of Minds: International Collaboration on Brain Science Must Be a Foreign Policy Priority

A baby has its brain studied in London
Leo, aged 9 months, takes part in an experiment at the 'Birkbeck Babylab' Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, on March 3, 2014 in London, England. The launch of the International Brain Initiative this week at the United Nations General Assembly marks a turning point for brain science, write Dr. Vaughan Turekian and Robert Conn. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The launch of the International Brain Initiative at the United Nations General Assembly this week marked a turning point for brain science, elevating this discipline to an issue of global economic, societal and political importance on a par with security and defense.

Brain science research is advancing our understanding of a broad range of human conditions, allowing governments to improve everything from public health to education and care for the elderly. There has been unprecedented activity over the last five years, with investment in national programs, as well as the creation of large-scale brain projects achieving breakthroughs such as optogenetics, which is able to turn brain circuits on and off with light, and CLARITY, a technique to visualize whole-brain connectivity.

Together, such technologies and advances in basic research will put the global neuroscience community in a good position to solve some grand challenges in brain research the near future. But, as good as the science is today, we need additional basic research as well as a way for the brain science community to work together more effectively, from sharing data and research tools, to developing standards, to supporting student exchanges and visiting scientists.

This is why the fundamental leap toward understanding the brain can only be made through international collaboration. What’s more, if we consider the significant social and economic burdens derived from brain diseases, it is clear that international collaboration on brain science should also be a foreign policy priority that our leaders invest in and support. Better understanding the human brain could also dramatically improve the security of our people, as it may give governments a chance to address the root causes of problems such as violence or population migration before they escalate.

This is why, for the first time, leading neuroscientists, various funding bodies, and private foundations from across the globe meet this week to establish a roadmap towards greater cooperation, to pool resources, and to offset strengths and weaknesses in brain research.  

The International Brain Initiative aims to leverage the strengths of different brain projects and to create a global standard of research that allows rapid sharing of information across international borders. By developing community-driven resources that espouse open-source philosophies, this effort will catalyze high-impact collaborations and facilitate the generation of cutting-edge information, resulting in significant intellectual progress.

Insufficient support for this field of research will not only negatively affect human health, but will also hinder development and economic growth. In 2011, the World Economic Forum and Harvard University predicted mental health conditions would cost the global economy $6 trillion by 2030. The figure is even higher when you consider the cost of other brain disorders, for instance those relating to aging, stress, or trauma. The International Brain Initiative has secured financial support from awards made as part of the existing U.S. BRAIN Initiative. But we look to garner even more political, public, and financial support, as investing in brain research is paramount to our shared, global prosperity.

The economic burden of mental health issues is well-documented across the developed world. Japan, a country challenged by the ailments faced by its aging population, is also battling depression—a condition that is estimated to cost their government around $11 billion in 2008. Autism alone costs the U.S. economy around $250 billion per year, and Alzheimer’s disease is on the rapid rise, leading to substantial medical and care costs.

Developing countries are also challenged by brain disorders, and these issues become more acute when people are forced to migrate or seek asylum owing to conflict or natural disasters—or, especially, continue to live in such areas. Mental trauma, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by these experiences adds an additional layer of challenges for governments handling influxes of refugees.

International collaboration on brain science, supported by governments, philanthropy, and industry, will make it possible for us to grasp these challenges better and to seek lasting solutions. Furthermore, understanding these mental health issues will also help reduce human suffering. Finally, a better understanding of brain function would result in new brain-inspired technologies and computing paradigms, establishing entirely new industries. These may not be easily quantifiable goals, but are surely something to strive for.

We are at a critical juncture in brain science research. We are on the brink of discovering revolutionary insights that will improve quality of life for individuals and substantially reduce the economic burden of brain disorders on society. We cannot achieve this without coordinated global action.

Dr. Vaughan Turekian is Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Robert Conn is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Kavli Foundation, a U.S.-based scientific research organization.