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Carnegie Mellon launches $75M project to better understand brain disorders

| Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, 12:44 p.m.
Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University (left) talks with Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, during a panel on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, for the launching of Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub, its new approach to transformative brain research.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University (left) talks with Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, during a panel on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, for the launching of Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub, its new approach to transformative brain research.
Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University, speaks during a panel on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, for the launching of Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub, its new approach to transformative brain research.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University, speaks during a panel on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, for the launching of Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub, its new approach to transformative brain research.
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, speaks during a panel on Tuesday for the launching of Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub, its new approach to transformative brain research.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, speaks during a panel on Tuesday for the launching of Carnegie Mellon University's BrainHub, its new approach to transformative brain research.

Managing brain-related illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and depression has a hefty price tag — $1 trillion a year in the United States and $5 trillion a year worldwide, according to public health research. Yet, with billions of cells and dozens of cell types, scientists say we know little about how the brain works.

To focus computing and engineering know-how on one of the most complex biological systems, Carnegie Mellon University officials announced on Tuesday a global, $75 million partnership to improve the understanding of the human brain.

“This is the topic of the decade, no question,” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who spoke at the announcement. “The public has become really intrigued by the brain.”

Calling the five-year project CMU BrainHub, researchers from CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as universities in England, China and India, will work to build better tools for imaging, cataloging and treating patients' brains affected by neurological disorders.

Some of the effort will analyze how humans learn, CMU President Subra Suresh said.

After the announcement, a panel of CMU scientists addressed some of Suresh's aims.

“The study of the brain is fundamentally data-starved,” said Tom Mitchell of the CMU department of machine learning.

Alison Barth, a biology professor at CMU, said researchers haven't even cataloged all the types of cells in the brain, let alone link them to diseases.

“You could harness them, but you have to know who they are,” she said.

The frequency of brain-related illness is rising, Suresh said, citing statistics that say:

• If you reach age 85, you have a 50 percent chance of getting Alzheimer's disease.

• One in 68 American children will be diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

• Each year, 16 million people in the United Statees report experiencing symptoms of depression.

• Every 20 seconds, someone in the world commits suicide.

“It not only involves the biology of the human brain but involves the psychology of the human mind,” Suresh said.

Suresh said the project was one of the first he was approached with when he joined the university in 2013. He said part of the reason why CMU is collaborating with researchers in India and China is that the countries account for about one-third of the world's population.

One of the donors to the project is Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of the Indian IT giant Infosys. He has put $40 million toward brain research in India. Suresh did not disclose the amount of Gopalakrishnan's donation to Brain Hub but said it is his first major international philanthropic effort.

Insel said that “burden of disease” studies show brain disorders are the leading source of disability and years of life lost to illness. He said that while the 20th century was one of infectious disease, when science focused on eradicating the things we could spread to each other, the 21st century will be one focused on noncommunicable diseases, particularly brain-related illnesses.

CMU's effort aligns with President Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or, BRAIN initiative, Insel said. The $4.5 billion, 10-year federal research program began in April 2013, with the goal of building better tools to study the brain. He cited instances where collaborations between computer scientists and biomedical researchers reduced research times from years to weeks and noted that while Congress hasn't approved the $4.5 billion needed to pursue the research, its effect could be felt for years to come.

“If we could simply delay the onset of Alzheimer's by five years, we could have a profound impact on cost,” Insel said.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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