Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN)

TechnologyReview | On a beautiful April morning, chemist Paul Weiss is darting across the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, in red-framed Wayfarer sunglasses and a suit. He’s on his way to make himself an espresso, but even with a caffeine deficit he’s tough to keep up with. Weiss put the coffee machine in his students’ office instead of his own, to create more opportunities to check in with them and run into colleagues.

Weiss, who heads the California Nanosystems Institute, a state-sponsored research hub for all things nano, is a specialist in developing new ways of probing single molecules like neurotransmitters and those that make up the active layer in solar panels. However, with caffeine in his system, what he wants to talk about is not chemistry but community. For Weiss, 53, chemistry is a social science. "It’s about making a connection," he says. To be able to do something useful, he says, you have to connect to other people within and outside your field, know what problems other fields like neuroscience or energy will be facing in 10 years, and start building the necessary tools today.

As far as he’s concerned, one of the most important goals for the next decade is to understand the human brain. To meet that challenge, biologists need help from chemists, physicists, engineers, and other toolmakers like him, he says. The brain has nearly 100 billion neurons networked together by an estimated 100 trillion electrical and chemical connections. How all these interactions combine to enable us to walk, talk, learn, form memories, create—and how things go wrong in diseases like Parkinson’s—is pretty much a mystery. Weiss hopes to create new tools for probing the nanoscale chemical and electrical activity of thousands to millions of neurons at once. "If we want to understand what a memory is, how we learn—this is where we think the sweet spot is," he says.

For years, Weiss has been recruiting researchers from apparently distant fields to work on the problem—helping organize meetings of scientists to talk about it, trying to bridge the gap between neuroscientists and physical scientists. This organizing work has now borne fruit. In April, President Obama requested $100 million in federal funding for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Private research institutions are also chipping in. The Kavli Foundation, a nonprofit in Oxnard, California, has pledged $40 million over the next 10 years. "His profound understanding of the whole field of nanotechnology made a huge difference," says the Kavli Foundation’s vice president of science programs, Miyoung Chun, who helped co├Ârdinate the project that became the BRAIN Initiative.

Researchers working in relative isolation have already made progress on developing tools for studying the brain, including arrays of nanoscale electrodes for probing neurons and computer programs for analyzing the onslaught of data these kinds of measurements are expected to generate. By working together, Weiss believes, researchers from different fields can now accelerate advances by developing common, widely available tools.


John Kurman said...

Here's to hoping they use a Japanese or Canadian connectome to reverse engineer inteliigence:

Nakajima Kikka said...

Did you catch the sharp jab directed at the southern Europeans ("Italians and Spanish score at the bottom across generations, while those of northern European extraction fare much better")?

That makes me go "hmmmmm".

John Kurman said...

No, that makes me go "poverty". The Scandinavian countries have a nicely developed social support system. Italy, Greece, and Spain, not so much.

John Kurman said...

Here's another fun one, only vaguely related:

makheru bradley said...

[The threat is real. The NIH Interim Report is another of many indications that brain technology for neuroweapons is scientifically possible. Additionally, some say such technologies have been used systematically against select people in various jurisdictions. Many definitions on certain procedures and practices have to be revisited due to the many legal loop holes that allow for real criminals to commit illegal activities.

Our latest issue of Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives (Volume 02, Number 2 & 3) features as its main story, the inside story of a US mind control project. Ms. Cheryl Welsh, who is the director of a small human rights organization in the US, has been examining, on an in-depth level, this issue, exclusively for us. It is a privilege for us to present her long term research paper and we believe this will be a worthy contribution to a larger, critical debate on the use of neuroweapons. Currently, the dialectic on the new neuroscience programs is extremely one sided and lacking in an awareness of the likelihood of neuroweapons; there is a great need for a more balanced dialogue on a global level in the future as well.]