A signature science program of the Obama administration’s second term—one intended to develop technologies and a base of knowledge to solve long-standing mysteries of how the brain works—has finally reached cruising altitude.
The Obama Administration’s Brain Initiative, which could stretch through the 2025 federal funding year if it gets continued funding from future administrations, now has a set of specific objectives for what it may take to map the brain networks that either let you calculate a differential equation when all is going well or forget the name and face of a loved one when neural circuits become disconnected.
After a few hiccups early on, the program appears to be doing what it set out to do in funding highly ambitious projects that, if realized, would extend technologies for recording, imaging or tweaking brain circuits far beyond the current state of the art. On Sept. 30, the National Institutes of Health detailed 58 awards totaling $46 million for the 2014 federal funding year.
Researchers from Rockefeller University plan to switch circuits on and off deep within the brains of experimental animals by using radio waves, nanometer-scale particles and genetically modified viruses—a remote control of electrical signaling in the putamen or the sub-thalamic nucleus.
A group from the University of California-Irvine wants to create a “complete description” of what happens in a key neural hub when a memory is recalled.
New imaging technologies would include a scanner that could pick up brain activity by detecting the electromagnetic emanations broadcast by neurons. There could also be wearable PET scanners and portable MRIs, if all goes as planned.
One grant will recruit “citizen scientists” to play an online video game that will help pinpoint how the avalanche of incoming photons that hit your eyeball transmute into nerve signals in the retina. “The ideas that emerged, in my opinion, were more interesting than what we had been thinking might have happened when we put together some of the ideas for the future,” says Cori Bargmann, who led a panel of scientists that were advising the program.
An academic who proposed the original idea for a large-scale program on new brain technologies had praise for the caliber of the grants awarded, but also said an important piece was missing to make the project a success. Rafael Yuste of Columbia University, who now has no direct involvement in the project, continues to advocate the building of a “brain observatory”—a centralized campus that can coordinate the overall brain initiative and bring together specialized expertise and instrumentation to meet program goals, as the facilities atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii do for astronomy. (Check out Yuste’s article that appeared as the cover story of the March issue in Scientific American.)
The U.S. Brain Initiative’s experience contrasts with Europe’s Human Brain Project (HBP) that has encountered deep dissension about its objectives, leading to threats of a boycott by researchers expected to be beneficiaries of the billion-euro funding allocation from the European Union.
A sign that the U.S. project is gaining the needed momentum can be seen in the funding pledges by a range of biomedical and information technology companies, academic institutions and private foundations. The U.S. photonics industry has started its own $30 million program to support the Brain Initiative with optical sensors and other technologies. GlaxoSmithKline has upped its existing funding by $5 million to provide incentives for developing new technologies—nerve stimulators, for instance, to treat disease. Google has pledged to develop new methods to analyze compendia of brain-related information containing petabytes of data. Quadrillions of bytes for the trillions of electrical circuits embedded underneath your skull.
Image Source: Marie Suver, Ph.D. and Ainul Huda, University of Washington and Michael H. Dickinson, Ph.D., California Institute of Technology