I admire those who can explain the complex simply. In researching the latest developments in neuroscience and technology, I discovered the brilliant Dr. Story Landis, a neurobiologist and the Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Dr. Landis is part of the leadership for the President’s new “BRAIN Initiative,” a Grand Challenge of the 21st Century, and provides an easy overview of the latest advances in neurotechnology in this video (starting at 5:05).
She presented at the Society of Neuroscience’s Annual Convention as part of a distinguished panel to discuss the new brain initiatives in the United States and in Europe for 2014.
What is the U.S. BRAIN Initiative?
The acronym, BRAIN, stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “By accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies, researchers will be able to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.”
The goal of the initiative is to develop tools for researchers to discover new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders. Through these technologies, researchers will explore “how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”
Why Don’t We Have a Consistent Map of the Brain?
Neuroscientists need a consistent map of brain anatomy, but there isn’t one yet. Why? According to the Kavli Foundation, one of the partners of the initiative, “In the fast-moving field of neuroscience, researchers constantly reorganize brain maps to reflect new knowledge. They also face a vocabulary problem. Sometimes, different research groups will use several words to describe a single location; other times, a single word may mean different things to different researchers. Nor do maps remain consistent when moving across species.”
Advances in Neurotechnology to Visualize the Brain
A Connectome is a structural description of the brain first proposed by Olaf Sporns. The Human Connectome Project (HCP) is a consortium comprehensively mapping brain circuitry in 1,200 healthy adults using noninvasive neuroimaging, and making their datasets freely available to the scientific community. Get the HCP data here.
Four imaging modalities are used to acquire data with unprecedented resolution in space and time. Resting-state functional MRI (rfMRI) and diffusion imaging (dMRI) provide information about brain connectivity. Task-evoked fMRI reveals much about brain function. Structural MRI captures the shape of the highly convoluted cerebral cortex. Behavioral data provides the basis for relating brain circuits to individual differences in cognition, perception, and personality. In addition, 100 participants will be studied using magnetoencephalography and electroencephalography (MEG/EEG). – HumanConnectome.org
Brainbow is the process by which individual neurons in the brain can be distinguished from neighboring neurons using fluorescent proteins. The idea is to color-code the individual wires and nodes, and was developed at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard.
CLARITY (Clear, Lipid-exchanged, Anatomically Rigid, Imaging/immunostaining compatible, Tissue hYdrogel) is a method of making brain tissue transparent, and offers a three-dimensional view of neural networks. It was developed by Karl Deisseroth and colleagues at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The ability for CLARITY imaging to reveal specific structures in such unobstructed detail has led to promising avenues of future applications including local circuit wiring (especially as it relates to the Connectome Project). Pictured is a mouse brain with CLARITY.
Optogenetics uses light to control neurons that have been genetically sensitized to light. Optogenetics is credited with providing new insights for Parkinson’s Disease, autism, Schizophrenia, drug abuse, anxiety and depression.
A Revolution is Taking Place in Brain Science
Also part of the leadership for the BRAIN initiative is neuroscientist William Newsome of Stanford University:
Most of us who have been in this field in the last few decades understand that there is a revolution going on right now, so these tools we’ve mentioned already did not exist 8 years ago, and some did not exist 6 months ago. The pace of technological change is so rapid right now that those of us who were traditional experimental scientists say, “Whoa, what does it even mean to be an experimental scientist in this day and age?” We have to totally rethink what experiments are even possible, and it opens up vistas that were unimaginable 10 years ago.
Dr. Newsome recently wrote about the Initiative in JAMA Neurology:
“Missing, however, has been an understanding of how the many millions of neurons associated with a perception, thought, decision, or movement are dynamically linked within circuits and networks. Even the simplest perceptual task involves the activity of millions of neurons distributed across many brain regions. How simple percepts arise from patterned neural activity and how the resulting percepts are linked to emotion, motivation, and action are deeply mysterious. In the past, answers to these questions seemed out of reach.”
New Brain Health Registry
To get a deeper understanding of the brain before and after disorders, neuroscientists from the University of California San Francisco have established a new “Brain Health Registry.” Their goal is to address one of the biggest obstacles to cures for brain disorders – the costs and time involved in clinical trials. To register your brain, participate in games, and help scientists, read more in the FAQs.
The Brain and Disorders by the Numbers
The average adult brain is about 1,300 to 1,400 grams or 3 pounds, and is about 5.9 inches or 15 centimeters long. It is often quoted that are 100 billion neurons in the human brain, but Dr. Suzana Herculan-Houzel of Brazil recently discovered there are 14 billion fewer. According to her research, the human brain has 86 billion neurons or nerve cells.
What is the impact of brain disorders in the U.S.?
According to the World Health Organization, brain disorders are a leading contributor to the global disease burden, and the fourth highest for Western developed countries. About 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from damage to the nervous system, and there are more than 600 neurological diseases.
Psychiatric Illness – About 1 in 4 American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, according to the NIMH.
Alzheimer’s – In 2014, there are 5.2 million people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s Disease, according to the Alzhemier’s Association. With the growth of the Baby Boomer generation, it is expected that between 11 and 16 million will be affected by 2050.
Parkinson’s – The Parkinson’s Foundation estimates 1 million Americans live with Parkinson’s Disease.
Autism – One in 68 children in the U.S. are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, a 30% increase from two years ago.
Innovation Requires a Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Research and Technology
The BRAIN Initiative involves a number of government agencies and private partners fostering a multi-disciplinary approach to research and technology. Specifically, it is a unique collaboration across disciplines involving the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Learn more in this video with Dr. Tom Insel, Director of the NIMH, and Dr. Fleming Crim of the NSF, as they discuss exploring the connections between the life sciences and physical sciences in understanding the brain.
Call to Action from the White House
Through a Call to Action, the White House has asked to hear from companies, health systems, patient advocacy organizations, philanthropists, and developers about the unique activities and capabilities underway that could be leveraged to catalyze new breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain.
Do you have an idea? You have until May 1st to send your ideas to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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