An era for BRAIN technology

Published in Protocols & Methods

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President Barack Obama has just proposed large investments in a project aiming to develop technologies that enhance our understanding of brain function.

In an official announcement from the White House, US President Obama just launched the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative project. This basic research project is expected to receive large sums of public and private funding to promote technologies that expand our knowledge of brain function.

This was a much awaited announcement. From what can be read in the White House’s official Press release, the BRAIN Initiative will be a collaboration between the US National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, with an initial injection of funds going up to $100 million for 2014.

To set the goals and timeline of this project, the NIH will establish a working group composed of 60-80 scientists co-chaired by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University and Bill Newsome from Stanford University. Through workshops and meetings that will take place in 2013, the working group will define the detailed scientific goals and establish a multi-year scientific plan for achieving them. The workshops are to start in about one month.

In addition, the project will have several private sector partners: the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Most of these institutions have already been investing in technology development to address the challenges of understanding the brain for some time. In fact, Nature Methods recently published work from HHMI investigators showing the first whole brain imaging of neural activity at the single-cell level. As the details of the goals and timelines of the BRAIN Initiative become clearer over the next few months, we will likely have a more concrete idea of how the budget for BRAIN will be projected in the coming years.

What is unique about BRAIN compared to other previous ‘big science’ projects like the Human Genome Project is that it is advocating for technology development first as it lays out its broad goals without indicating a particular biological idea or concept. The need for technology development is so dear in neuroscience that in our view devoting substantial resources to this is essential for understanding brain function, a view that appears to be shared by the HHMI as evidenced by the substantial technology development they are funding for brain research at the HHMI Janelia Farm Research campus.

As we have discussed in previous posts on this site and in our April Editorial, to understand the brain we will need technologies that help large scale mapping of the structural wiring diagrams in the brain, that record the activity of whole brains in action at resolutions that mirror those of physiology and behavior and that link function and behavior. In all these areas, we first need to improve our tools and methods.

The progress that can be made by promoting technological development cannot be underestimated. Once more powerful methods are in the hands of researchers, knowledge will advance at a much higher speed and investments in science will be more productive and efficient.

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