Bolstered brain research aims inward

As a part of the first wave of new federal funding initiatives, research and development into novel technologies to better understand the brain will begin this year.

“Most of what you will see in this remarkable set of [grant awards] are technological advances,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, during a Sept. 30 press conference. “We are seriously tackling an understanding of the most complicated biological structure in the known universe.”

In 2013, President Barack Obama partnered with the NIH to launch the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies—or BRAIN—Initiative. The NIH announced last week it would be rewarding an initial $46 million in funds to more than 100 researchers across the U.S. and in several countries to begin work to advance understanding of the brain. 

“President Obama announced this as a grand challenge for the nation, a grand scientific challenge,” said Bill Newsome, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and co-chair of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director. “They impaneled this group of us, kind of a blue-ribbon committee of neuroscientists, to really step back and look at the field and see where the major opportunities are [and] how we can push [neuroscience] forward a lot faster.” 

Newsome said the president’s goals for the BRAIN Initiative range from a desire to better understand the internal circuitry and functions to laying out a framework for determining what goes wrong when people are diagnosed with  devastating neurological and psychiatric diseases. 

The NIH spends about $5 billion per year on neuroscience research, according to Newsome. The BRAIN Initiative allotted $100 million to researchers pursuing innovation in a variety of neuroscientific disciplines in the 2014 fiscal year. However, the committee recommended allotments grow to $200 million in fiscal year 2015 and increase steadily until fiscal year 2019, plateauing at $500 million. While BRAIN will account for only about 10 percent of the total NIH expenditures for brain research annually, the more modest sum will be focused on making strides with measurable goals. Experts from across the nation met with the committee to discuss potential areas of research and workshop big ideas for how to make significant leaps in understanding human neural circuitry, surgery and psychiatry. 

“The technologies up until very recently have allowed neuroscientists to look at neuronal firing patterns that are directly linked to perception or action,” said Alyssa Picchini Schaffer, scientific officer for the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain. 

The Simons Foundation, a private foundation that sponsors a range of programs to make progress on fundamental scientific questions, launched its Collaboration on the Global Brain in the spring of 2014 with an end goal of having a more thorough mechanistic understanding of brain function. 

Picchini Schaffer said moving forward, the research community  already knows that a lot of what goes on in the brain is internal, taking place between sensory input and the resulting response. While most of the technologies that would allow for this better understanding are still in development, the best tools currently in use are able to look at the activity of neurons in a brain.

“Combining multiple neuronal input with complementary mathematical and computational analyses will allow us to understand the more complex data sets we’re collecting in order to understand the internal states,” she said. “We’re sort of poised on the precipice of being able to move forward and really take some major steps into understanding how the brain works.”

According to Newsome, while the NIH-funded research will cover all manner of projects, trying to tackle all of neuroscience’s remaining mysteries is not the idea. 

“We’ve targeted that problem of neural circuits, and to crack that problem, we’ve got to get a map,” Newsome said. “But just like you’d need a map of a city to understand how its roadways are working, you also need to know about traffic flow—the electro-chemical activity flowing in the [brain’s] circuits.”

Being able to record those electrical signals, understand how the circuits operate and utilize that information to manipulate and make predictions about how their activity will affect the functioning of the human organism as a whole is what really drove the Advisory Committee’s recommendations, he said. 

“Those of us who work in neuroscience, we understand that there’s a revolution going on right now, and the revolution is being driven by new technologies,” Newsome said. “[These will] allow us to make measurements that simply had been unimaginable more than 10 years ago. It’s a new world we’re looking at here over the next few decades.”