Progress in BRAIN Initiative Research

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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.

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Pioneering LSD Brains Scans

The study of psychedelic drugs is particularly difficult for neuroscientists due to legal restrictions and fears about dangerous side effects. While researchers had some understanding of the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) through analyzing the experiences of people who had taken the drug, the neurological response was still a mystery because scientists were never able to conduct brain scans.

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

David Nutt, DM, FRCP, a member of the Dana Alliance and former chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, recently conducted the first brain scans showing the brain on LSD. Nutt, a longtime advocate for the study of psychedelic drugs and 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), especially as therapeutic tools to treat psychiatric disorders, talked about the importance of studying these drugs in a 2012 interview with us. Nutt said:

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A Ghostly Presence

Walking through New York City’s Chelsea Market Wednesday evening, it was hard not to notice the macabre graveyard scenery, hanging ghosts, and appendages crawling out of the walls. There was even an installed pipe coming out of the ceiling that had a torrent of “red water” falling into a sinkhole with zombie mannequins creeping out. It was entertaining, to say the least, and visitors were loving it.

But what is it about Halloween that gets people so worked up? Surely, it can’t be just the candy—that can be found on store shelves all year round. For a brief moment, the month of October allows us to unearth our fascination with morbid ideas such as vampires, haunted houses, and ghosts. Beyond the grisly decorations, there are varying superstitions about apparitions and the otherworldly in cultures throughout the world; but how do we explain the unintentional occurrences that spook us into believing in ghosts?

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

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Report on Progress: What Were You Thinking?!

“What Were You Thinking?!” is the title of the latest Report on Progress, where Marisa Silveri, Ph.D., gives insight into the teenage brain.

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Cerebral Malaria: A Wily Foe…8 Years Later

guest post by Kayt Sukel

With today’s headlines awash with tales of measles and the Ebola virus, it can be easy to forget that malaria, an infectious disease caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum, remains one of the most deadly diseases on the planet. According to the World Health Organization, more than 600,000 people died of malaria in 2012—the majority attributed to the most severe form of the disease, cerebral malaria. One of malaria’s biggest mysteries is why some people develop the cerebral form of the disease, in which the malarial parasites invade the blood vessels around the brain, and then recover, while others with this form, many of them young children, will die of the infection.

Dr. Terrie Taylor, Michigan State University, takes vitals on a child in the pediatric malaria ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, Africa. Photo by Jim Peck, MSU

Dr. Terrie Taylor, Michigan State University, takes vitals on a child in the pediatric malaria ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, Africa. Photo by Jim Peck, MSU

In 2008, I spoke with Terrie Taylor, DO, about her clinical work with cerebral malaria patients in Malawi. She explained how cerebral malaria is a “tricky disease,” but was optimistic that researchers would have a clearer picture of how Plasmodium falciparum occupy the brain’s blood vessels in five to ten years. One of her most important goals was to understand what might be different in the brains of those who died of the disease from those who survived. Now, eight years after my Cerebrum story “Cerebral Malaria:  A Wily Foe” was published, Taylor and colleagues have published a groundbreaking neuroimaging study in the New England Journal of Medicine highlighting one of those key differences.

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