Why you should care

Because until scientists learn how the brain functions normally, they won’t be able to conquer autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s or wartime brain injuries.

In this Columbia University lab, what are the fastest lasers money can buy doing? They’re shooting infrared light into a mouse’s brain as it runs on a rotating trackball while watching a movie. No, this is not video game research. And for those readers to whom this experiment does seem fairly typical, don’t be fooled: This test, which examines neuron response, is just one of the questions at the heart of a $5 billion so-called BRAIN Initiative aimed at “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.”

Officially dubbed the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (yeah, we prefer the “BRAIN” acronym too), the program launched last year to speed up the development of innovative tech and help guys and gals in white lab coats to create a new, dynamic picture of the mind. It was backed by $126 million from a few government agencies but is expected to receive $5 billion over its decadelong life span.

At Columbia, Rafael Yuste’s laboratory is one of 150 around the U.S. that’s working on projects under the initiative. His team is building 3-D holographic microscopes that may one day be able to map all the neurons in the human brain. Yuste — a Spanish doctor, neuroscientist and professor — is an important piece of figuring out the brain puzzle. After all, he first proposed the interdisciplinary initiative to the White House as a way to finally solve the problems of cognition and mental illness by “breaking the code” — figuring out the relationship between brain activity and thought. “If we could understand how this ‘computer’ works, we could fix it when it’s broken,” says Yuste.

But imaging every neuron is a daunting challenge. There are around 4,000 neurons in each square millimeter of the human brain, and experts don’t have the ability to see how all of them currently interact. Developing better technology to study and treat brain problems is the goal of the program that sprang out of Yuste’s idea. Here’s the issue, though: Today’s brain therapies can help, but can’t entirely cure, many diseases. Cochlear implants in deaf patients’ ears help the brain to process sounds, but can’t completely restore hearing. The same is true of implanting electrodes deep within a patient’s brain to fight depression or epilepsy. “All of those are very crude,” says George Church, a genetics prof at Harvard Medical School who is collaborating with Yuste on Brain Initiative projects.

Professor Rafael Yuste with a laser

Professor Rafael Yuste

Source Columbia University

To move ahead, the initiative is focused on determining how many types of cells are in the brain. (Amazingly, scientists don’t yet know this). It is also pushing for the development of new tools to understand brain circuitry and designing new imaging technologies, says Greg Farber, who co-heads the National Institutes of Health’s coordinating committee for the program.

This agenda matters, Farber explains, because until experts learn how the brain functions normally, they won’t be able to solve autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s or wartime injuries that cause post-traumatic stress disorder, among other mental issues. There are at least 250,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with traumatic brain injuries, many of whom suffer aftereffects, and doctors will continue to be at a loss when it comes to treating these casualties if they don’t understand how the brain is supposed to work.

What really worries ethicists is how to handle new technologies that may manipulate brain function.

Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country exploring this field. It’s a global race among neuroscientists and their government backers, with the EU working on a $1 billion project to build a computer model of the brain, Japan funding scientists to study the brains of marmoset monkeys as well as looking at new chemicals for brain imaging, and China saying it’ll pick a specific goal this month — while noting that it already plans to spend more than the U.S.

Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that the American project will ultimately yield successful treatments or products. Many neuroscience breakthroughs that are hyped on discovery “are disappointing outside the laboratory,” says Jonathan Moreno, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania who is also a senior adviser to the White House’s bioethics commission. What worries some ethicists is how to handle new technologies that may manipulate brain function. Suppose, for instance, that scientists developed a way to erase memories, which could help treat PTSD or other mental illnesses. “Who gets to make that decision,” asks Farber, “and under what circumstances is it done?”

Another ethical problem, Moreno says, hinges on new neuroscience tools and their intersection with national security. Scientists are getting closer to designing computer software that can operate completely independently of humans. Such intelligent systems have major military applications, which means more brain research leads to better weapons, including robots that can function on their own or missiles that don’t need humans to fire them. “The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn about how to make that software,” says Moreno.

The initiative has already begun to yield new techniques, such as the idea of using ultrasound technology combined with existing methods to improve image resolution when scientists look at shots of the brain. This sort of serendipity — finding out that two unrelated technologies can be used together — is how neuroscience discovery works. “You can plan to go to the moon, but you can’t plan for breakthroughs in brain research,” says Partha Mitra, a biomathematics professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on New York’s Long Island, whose lab is working on a few Brain Initiative projects.

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