Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research


President Barack Obama fist-bumps the robotic arm of Nathan Copeland during a tour at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In the less than three years since the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was announced, researchers have made measurable progress towards creating new tools and sharpening existing ones to study the brain. Though its goals are long-term, in a few cases this progress already has shown promise in helping people.

These tools “allow us to do things that, in the past, were unimaginable,” said Nora Volkow of the National Institute of Drug Abuse during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., this week. For example, imaging tech such as fMRI and PET have enabled us to make maps of brain activity and create a brain atlas of the concentration of serotonin transporters and receptors. But to reach goals as ambitious as characterizing the many types of neurons and other cells in the brain—or even to get a good count of how many types there are—we need to improve both the speed and the resolution of our tools.

At the meeting, scientists and engineers described advances in using focused ultrasound as a form of non-invasive brain stimulation, high-speed 3-D microscopy in living organisms, and neural event recording and modulating, and also offered many ideas for how to handle and share the big datasets all this new tech is collecting. One of the goals of the initiative is to have experts from outside brain science join the cause: Last year, BRAIN Initiative grants were awarded to as many engineers as neuroscientists. These interdisciplinary efforts are often where the inspirations occur, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins said on Wednesday.

For example, at University of Pittsburgh researchers have built a brain-machine interface that not only works top-down, enabling a person to send motor signals to an artificial limb, but bottom-up, enabling him to feel sensory signals in the limb. When their volunteer subject, Nathan Copeland, fist-bumped President Obama in October, Copeland felt the touch (see video). He has described having someone touch one of the robot-arm’s fingers as a pressure or a tingling in his own corresponding finger. The sensors and mechanisms are only a rough approximation, but they are another step down the long path to enabling people with paralysis, stroke, and other disorders to have more control over their daily lives. As Copeland told an AP reporter, “It’s cheesy, but Luke Skywalker loses his hand and then basically the next day he’s got a robot one and it’s working fine. We have to get to that point, and to do that, someone has to start it.”

Most of BRAIN-funded research is targeted to the fundamental level, seeking to accurately describe what is happening in real-time and how it might be influenced to heal or maintain health. Researcher Cori Bargmann at the Rockefeller Institute and colleagues have used the improved genetic and imaging tools to discover and describe previously unknown brain circuits in C. elegans (worms). “We have the tools, that the BRAIN Initiative has created for higher-level systems, and can apply them to these simple animals, too,” she said at the meeting.

“What we’ve learned from studying a very simple circuit is that each circuit is many circuits”: sensory, motor, memory formation, memory retrieval, switching between behaviors, and responding to feedback. “This idea should apply across more-complex brains, as well,” she said. Circuits are complicated in a worm’s brain, and “it’s very clear that human brains will be more complicated,” a performance of not a single instrument but a whole orchestra.

Teasing out the complications in our brain, mapping its overlapping circuits and chemical and other influencers, is fundamental science: important but not immediately commercial. And it will take time.  Such long-term thinking is something government can do, said Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “We had the idea that orchestral dynamics might be there. Now we know they are there and now we want to know what they do.”

Almost three years into the project, which has a published timetable that stretches to 2025, “we are now moving full-bore,” said NIH Director Collins. The momentum should continue: The passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed by the president on Tuesday, earmarks funds for this initiative, as well as for the Precision Medicine Initiative, the cancer moonshot, mental health services, and treating opioid addiction, among many other things (the act is nearly 1,000 pages long). Collins co-authored an article in New England Journal of Medicine this week describing the Act and its effects on NIH. “It was inspiring to see this happen,” he said of the bipartisan support for the measure, and he encouraged the investigators at the meeting to invite their members of Congress to their labs to show them the Initiative’s work in action.  (Volkow is also a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.)

“The BRAIN project will be successful if it changes the way everybody in the field approaches the problems, Collins said, “to what extent people in the BRAIN project empower everybody else” by sharing data, new tools, and new discoveries. This project will “change our understanding of neuroscience fundamentally,” he said.

– Nicky Penttila

[See agenda and full videos from BRAIN Initiative meeting: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3]

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