Lawmakers yesterday introduced legislation designed to speed the development of new, safer therapies for brain and nervous system disorders and injuries, which affect an estimated 100 million Americans and costs an estimated $1.3 trillion annually to treat.

The National Neurotechnology Initiative Act (NNTI), which has bipartisan support, calls for $200 million in federal funds to be set aside annually to research potential treatments and to establish a clearinghouse for information from federal agencies to help them better coordinate efforts. The lawmakers charge that a lack of coordination has impeded development of treatments for brain-related illnesses.

The funds would also go toward coordinating the work of 16 branches within the NIH that study brain-related injuries as well as to add and train employees at the Food and Drug Administration, which has been accused of dragging its feet on drug approvals because it is, among other things, woefully understaffed.

"Recent discoveries are revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, and new uses for these discoveries are emerging almost every day," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) who, along with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), introduced the bill in the Senate. "The current research system for neurological diseases is disjointed and often limits this life-altering research from reaching the patients in need."

Researchers applauded the legislation. Zack Lynch, founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO), a recently formed trade association of small companies and organizations dedicated to brain research, says it has the potential of tripling the number of new drugs that make it onto the market by pooling brain- and man-power.

"For a modest investment," he said, "Congress has the opportunity to streamline research efforts, accelerate the development of new treatments, promote innovation by small businesses, and have a meaningful impact on the lives of those suffering from devastating diseases and injuries."

Murray says the measure is particularly crucial now, because scores of soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe head and spinal injuries, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The time has arrived to offer a serious and comprehensive legislative approach to help the countless Americans struggling and living with brain and nervous system illnesses," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–Fla.), who co-sponsored the House measure with Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). "To not act on this important issue is to relegate millions of our citizens to second class status and a lifetime of disabilities."

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is chaired by Kennedy's father, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. In the House, it is headed to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.