Email Print Share

Fact Sheet

Understanding the brain: The National Science Foundation and the BRAIN Initiative

Illustration of a head

A comprehensive understanding of the brain remains unknown.

September 3, 2013

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Visit for more information.

On April 2, 2013, the White House announced an initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), which includes the participation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). You may wonder what this means.

Part of what it means is an opportunity to continue a national conversation about an important topic: the brain. To help with the dialogue, here are short answers to some basic questions.

What is the BRAIN Initiative?

The BRAIN Initiative is an effort by federal agencies and private partners to support and coordinate research to understand how the human brain works.

Why do we need to understand the brain?

Understanding the brain means knowing the fundamental principles underlying brain structure and function. The research required to do so will accelerate scientific discovery and innovation, promote advances in technology and bolster U.S. economic competitiveness.

New neuroscience discoveries will enable us to foster brain health; engineer solutions that enhance, replace or compensate for lost function; improve the effectiveness of formal and informal educational approaches; promote learning across the lifespan and build brain-inspired smarter technologies for improved quality of life.

What is NSF's role in brain research?

NSF has a long history of support for brain science that has produced breakthroughs in brain imaging, neurotechnologies, modeling and genomics, and is uniquely positioned to lead an innovative, multi-disciplinary effort by scientists and engineers to advance a comprehensive understanding of brain structure and function.

NSF invests in high-risk, high-reward exploratory and transformational scientific and engineering research with emphasis on integration across scales and disciplines.

Why now?

While our knowledge of brain anatomy and how brain cells use chemical and electrical signals to communicate with one another has grown considerably, we are only beginning to understand how those signals interact to give rise to thoughts, processes and behaviors.

Now is the time for a comprehensive approach that combines new discoveries from a variety of fields, including brain anatomy, imaging and function as well as cyberinfrastructure. Understanding the brain has been identified as one of five longstanding and fundamental questions, or "grand challenges," for future research.

What do we need to do this?

  • Continued cooperation among different fields of research: biology, engineering, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, social and behavioral science, and medicine. To integrate findings across scales of space and time, from molecular, physical, physiological and genetic to cognitive and behavioral.
  • Discoveries born out of curiosity-driven science that will ultimately help maintain a healthy brain.
  • Tools that can detect, measure and record all the connections and activity in a single brain of 100 billion neurons (today's technology is limited to a few thousand neurons).
  • Improved data management and storage for the large amounts of information that will be produced.
  • Time. This is a long-term investment.

How will the BRAIN Initiative affect programs at NSF?

NSF invests tens of millions of dollars in neuroscience and cognitive science research across many disciplines. NSF will continue to make major investments in fundamental science across disciplines and in innovative technologies to accelerate discovery that will revolutionize our understanding of the brain.

When can the scientific community expect to learn more about NSF's research goals for the BRAIN Initiative?

Information will be added to in coming months. Follow our social media accounts for #brain updates.

Have more questions? Email us at


Media Contacts
Sarah Bates, NSF, (703) 292-7738, email:
Lily Whiteman, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

mail icon Get News Updates by Email 

Connect with us online
NSF website:
NSF News:
For News Media:
Awards database:

Follow us on social