Who Gets BBRF Independent Investigator Awards? And Why?

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) announced its 2014 NARSAD Independent Investigator Grants last week, and nearly half of them went to major east coast institutions. The grants, which total $4 million, award each of 40 cutting-edge research projects $500,000 per year for two years, with the goal of moving research past the start-up phase and solidly into mid-career territory. They’re appealing, as any prestigious award should be, and they’re pretty tough to get, even if you are doing cutting edge research at a major East Coast institution, as BBRF tends to favor. This cycle, BBRF fielded 347 applications for just 40 grants. That’s some stiff competition.

BBRF is all about taking on mental illness—especially schizophrenia and depression—and their 2014 awardees reflect that focus. Of the forty grants, eight went toward depression-related projects, and twelve went toward schizophrenia research. Other funding areas include the science of addiction, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety, and multiple disorders.

Thematically, BBRF is looking for projects that take on mental health research in one of three key areas: basic research, new technologies, and next-generation therapies. Basic research is focused on causality: A funded project in this category seeks to advance understanding of how inflammation influences depression by looking at the presence of inflammatory chemicals (cytokines) in the hippocampus. New technologies is all about new treatments and research techniques: One funded study will conduct brain imaging studies to explore a possible link between endocanabinoid metabolism and schizophrenia. Next generation therapies emphasize symptoms: At UCLA, researchers will try a brain stimulation method called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to improve cognitive defects in schizophrenia.

Overall, BBRF’s foundational philosophy is evident—cutting-edge, but not over the edge. BBRF, like many of its fellow charitable foundations taking on brain research, keeps mostly to already-proven avenues of research. In other words, the foundation has a groove, and it's sticking with it. The research is groundbreaking, but sensible, and—barring the occasional outlier, like researching epilepsy drugs’ efficacy on schizophrenia symptoms—it doesn't fund off-the-wall projects like it might have in the past.

So, what’s the take-home message? Well, if you’re in California, keep a stiff upper lip, for one. Just a tenth of 2014’s awards went to the Golden State: one apiece to USC, UCSF, UCLA, and UCSD, respectively, and that’s not saying much, given University of California’s gleaming reputation for medical research. All other things being equal, if you want a piece of the BBRF action, you have a much better chance of winning them over if you’re coming from Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, or even the Clinica de la Salud, in Spain. Nine of BBRF’s funded initiatives hailed from the UK or mainland Europe. Five were Canadian. That’s not good news if you’re West Coast, but it’s helpful in some ways to see a foundation with geographic preferences. If you’re East Coast, Canadian, or based in Europe, you have a much better chance of being among BBRF’s lucky 40 funded projects next time.