The Next Generation of Brain Scientists Just Got $13 Million to Study Mental Illness

Of all the mysteries of human biology, perhaps none are more mysterious than the relationship between the three pounds of gray matter in our heads and the infinity of the mind. No surprise that mental illness is also poorly understood, hard to diagnose and ineffectively treated.

Here's a bit of perspective you probably didn't know: The National Alliance of Mental Illness says that neuropsychiatric disorders have become the leading cause of disability in the world, surpassing even heart disease and cancer.

Mental illness is one area of medical research that is in desperate need of some big leaps forward. Compare that to something like HIV/AIDS: Basically a death sentence only a couple of decades ago, HIV is now a comparatively manageable condition whose patients can expect to live out normal lifespans.

Since 1987, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) has sought to accelerate the development of treatments for mental illness by supporting the scientists who might make those big leaps. The organization has awarded more than $340 million to thousands of researchers worldwide who study serious conditions like depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, autism, and bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity, post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Since the foundation's start, one the BBRF's signature initiatives is its NARSAD Young Investigator Grant program. These two-year awards, worth up to $70,000, are given to young scientists starting careers in neurobiological research. BBRF recently announced this year's award cohort: 191 scientists, for a total of $13 million in grants. (We've previously written about the BBRF's Independent Investigator Awards, for scientists further along in their careers and research avenues.)

Most of these scientists are engaged in answering fundamental questions about the mechanisms of mind, says the BBRF. It's asking for basic research into how the human brain gives rise to thought and consciousness, and how genetic, cellular, and circuit anomalies lead to brain disorders.

"These grants fund the kind of high-risk, high-reward research that may change lives and end the suffering that psychiatric illnesses bring so many, "said Herbert Pardes, president of the BBRF's scientific council and executive vice chair of the board of trustees at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Though relatively modest, the Young Investigator grants can make a huge difference for a cash-strapped post-doc or new faculty member. The money can extend fellowships and generate preliminary data in pilot studies to test new ideas. Scientists looking into novel concepts need to conduct such pilot studies in order to apply for the bigger multiyear research grants, possibly worth millions of dollars, that have the potential to move the ball forward in developing real-world treatments for millions of people suffering from mental illness.

Since 1987, the BBRF has made 3,888 Young Investigator Grants. That overall investment of $230 million has paid off tenfold, says the foundation, having led to more than $2.3 billion in subsequent research funding.