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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Unlocking the Brain

Individual neurons in the brain using fluorescent colors

Image showing individual neurons in the brain using fluroescent colors.
Photo: Courtesy of National Institiutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health is leading a bold new project to revolutionize understanding of the human brain. It is called the BRAIN Initiative—short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins recently outlined the challenge—and its potential benefits—for NIH MedlinePlus magazine.

How difficult will it be to understand how the brain works?

Given that a typical human brain contains 86 billion neurons, each with thousands of connections, it sounds like an impossible task.

So what even makes such a challenge possible?

New advances in computer science, math, nanotechnology, imaging, and data visualization are empowering us to study simpler neural systems, and ultimately the living brain as an entire organ. Like the heart, for example, and at a level of detail not previously imagined.

By accelerating development and application of innovative technologies, researchers will be able to produce a picture of neural systems that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex nerve circuits interact in both time and space.

So, what is the payoff to this?

By exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought, researchers will be able to develop new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders.

President Barack Obama and Dr. Francis Collins

President Barack Obama and Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, at the BRAIN Initiative event in the East Room of the White House, April 2, 2013.
Photo: Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

Why is the BRAIN Initiative needed?

The human brain remains one of science's greatest mysteries and one of the greatest challenges in medicine. Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, traumatic brain injury, and other neurological and psychological disorders exact a tremendous toll on us as individuals, our families, and society at large. Despite the many recent advances, the underlying causes of these conditions remain largely unknown.

If we are to develop effective ways of helping people suffering from them, researchers need a more complete array of tools and better understanding of how the brain functions in both sickness and in health.

Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, traumatic brain injury and other neurological and psychological disorders exact a tremendous toll on us, our families, and society at large.

What is the rush?

Five years ago, a project like this would have been considered impossible. Five years from now will be too late. While the goals are profoundly ambitious, the time is right to inspire a new generation of scientists to take on the most groundbreaking approach ever contemplated to finding out how the brain works and how disease occurs.

Could you describe some of the specific research opportunities you see?

In the last decade alone, there have been a number of landmark discoveries that make unlocking the brain possible. We have sequenced the human genome, developed new tools for mapping neuronal connections, increased the resolution of imaging technologies, and witnessed the explosion of nanoscience. Integration across these and more scientific fields has become a reality.

For instance, by combining advanced genetic and optical techniques, scientists can now determine how specific cell activities within the mouse brain affect behavior. Through the integration of neuroscience and physics, researchers can use high-resolution imaging technologies to observe how the brain is structurally and functionally connected in living humans.

What do such advances mean for the future?

While these innovations have expanded our knowledge of the brain, significant breakthroughs in how we treat neurological and psychiatric disease will require researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds. We can't do this now but great promise for doing so lies at the intersection of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging areas of science.

How will the BRAIN Initiative work?

Given the ambitious scope, it is vital that a wide range of expertise and experience inform the initiative. Therefore, NIH is establishing a high-level working group, co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia ("Cori") Bargmann, of The Rockefeller University, and Dr. William Newsome, from Stanford University, to work out the scientific goals and develop a multi-year plan for achieving them, including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates.

As part of the planning process, the working group will seek broad input from the scientific community, patient advocates, and the general public. By this fall, the group is supposed to make specific recommendations on high-priority investments for 2014.

How will the BRAIN Initiative be supported?

NIH intends to allocate $40 million for the project in 2014. Given the crosscutting nature, we will need the ideas of the best scientists and engineers across many diverse disciplines and sectors. Therefore, NIH is collaborating closely with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

There also is strong interest from several private foundations, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, The Kavli Foundation, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Many private companies are also interested in participating in this groundbreaking effort.

Summer 2013 Issue: Volume 8 Number 2 Page 2-3