NIH delivers BRAIN Initiative Interim Report

On April 2, 2013 U.S President Barack Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative, or Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, to accelerate technology development and basically map out the activity of every neuron in the brain. The 15-member Advisory Committee to NIH Director Francis Collins worked together to develop an extensive plan on how to achieve the BRAIN Initiative’s ambitious goals. Recently, the group delivered an interim report identifying nine high priority research areas geared toward developing tools to help scientists better understand how linked circuits of neurons work together in health and disease.

The working group met seven times over a four month period and held workshops with invited experts to discuss technologies in chemistry and molecular biology; electrophysiology and optics; structural neurobiology; computation, theory and data analysis; and human neuroscience. Each workshop allowed for public comments, providing the perspectives of patient advocacy groups, physicians, and members of the lay public.

Certain themes have already emerged from these workshops and should become core principles for the BRAIN Initiative. Interdisciplinary collaborations, developing platforms for sharing data, and considering ethical implications of neuroscience research are but a few of the major themes being considered.

An article in the IEEE Spectrum outlines the BRAIN Initiative as well as the interim report and provides factual information about the complexity of charting neurological activity. For example, because human beings have roughly 86 billion neurons as compared with a mouse’s 75 million neurons, the current tools of human brain analysis are incapable of recording neurological activity of that magnitude. However, the report from the NIH advisory committee doesn’t put the recording of cell activity at the top of the list, but rather starts with a “back-to-basics” mandate that calls for a census of the brain’s cell types.

While many are skeptical about the BRAIN Initiative’s grand ambitions, the project seems to be resonating with the scientific community. Karl Deisseroth, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California and was a member of NIH’s 15-member advisory team says that he has been “heartened” by the process of producing the recommendations.

In a related article in Science Magazine, Gerald Rubin, Executive Director of the Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, says that people who follow the field of neuroscience “won’t find anything in these recommendations boggling or shocking.” Overall, the recommendations are “fair, balanced, and reflect consensus in the field,” he says.