Brain Awareness Week

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

March 4, 2017

This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News.

This March, Brain Awareness Week (BAW) will celebrate its 22nd anniversary. BAW was the brain-child of David Mahoney, the chair of the Dana Foundation at that time. David, who had once been one of the nation’s top advertising and public relations executives, was the ultimate marketer. When BAW was in its planning stages, the idea of a “Brain Research Day” was proposed. At the time there were several “days” devoted to specific subjects, many in the cancer area. I was in on the early discussions, and David spent all of 30 seconds considering the alternatives before saying, “Let’s make it a week.” And so Brain Awareness Week was born.

Initially, BAW was focused on Washington, D.C., and Congress, recognizing that the major source of funding for brain research in the United States was the federal government, through the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. In the first few years, the major BAW event was a gathering in Washington attended by movers and shakers who determined federal financing. The attendees were from the government, academia, and professional and advocacy groups. This was a modest effort involving about 160 organizations.  

David’s BAW has grown remarkably, and is now under the direction of Kathleen Roina. The week has evolved into a global education initiative that has included the participation of 5,600 partners in 120 countries. In 2016, 1,775 BAW events were held in 43 countries and 40 states, reaching more than 190,000 people.

Campaign partners bring their unique perspectives and messages about the brain: An interest in a specific disease or disorder; a concern for early childhood development; concentration on successful aging; a commitment to maximizing human potential; or a concern for the future of medical research funding. As a collaborative effort, BAW offers its partners the opportunity to focus national and international attention on these specific messages within the broader context of our common interest in the brain and brain research.

Over time, outside groups aided the Dana Foundation in sustaining and growing BAW. In 1996, then-president of the Society for Neuroscience Bruce McEwen pledged that organization’s commitment to the campaign. SfN has been a major partner ever since; a BAW event has been presented at the SfN annual meeting for almost two decades. The Federation of European Neuroscience Societies has also become a very dedicated partner.

One of the most successful outcomes of BAW and other outreach activities of Dana has been to get scientists and clinical investigators, particularly younger participants, out of their labs and clinics to interact with the outside world. This interaction has been particularly successful in reaching students of all ages. A few years ago, I was a judge reviewing brain research activities of high school students in New York. I was astounded at the expertise of these kids and was tempted to recruit several, on the spot, to a neurology residency at Hopkins.  

When Dana first started BAW, it was one of the few programs that touted brain research. Now there are many, including those aimed at specific problems, such as cognitive changes with age (AARP), vascular problems in the brain (American Heart Association), or autism (Simons Foundation), among others.

What’s next for BAW?  There will always be a need for neuroscientists, both clinical and basic, to keep the general public aware of what they are doing and why. While support for brain research waxes and wanes, BAW remains a credible source of information. In recent years, the campaign’s web and social media presence has only expanded BAW’s reach. I encourage you to get involved, either as a BAW partner or an event attendee. To learn more, visit, where you’ll find a schedule of events and partner resources (such as tips for event-planning and free materials). Brain Awareness Week—a celebration that I’ve been privileged to be a part of—is from March 13-19.


BAW 2017 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Roland Pochet

3/13/2017 5:14:42 AM

Thank you for this article that I will quote March 16 in Strasbourg at the European Parliament in which MEPs has hosted us, recognizing the importance of brain research for a better health.