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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: BRAIN Awareness

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After what seems like an endless winter along the East Coast, we have reached what Emily Dickinson famously called the “month of expectation.” And, of course, March is also the time each year we celebrate Brain Awareness Week, the annual celebration of neuroscience with school visits, community lectures, and lab tours to talk about the brain. A list of Brain Awareness events can be found at http://www.dana.org/brainweek/ , where you will also find that March 16-22 is the week for related public events around the world.

Who would have imagined a decade ago that brain science would have become so popular? Not only has President Obama proclaimed the BRAIN  Initiative as the “next great American project,” there are related projects in the European Union, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Japan. We expect a brain project in China to be announced soon. The private sector has joined in as well, from big companies like GE to new companies like Inscopix. Google has shifted a team from mapping roads and traffic to mapping the intricacies of neuronal connections. Apple has announced a research kit for Parkinson’s disease. And Facebook is hiring computational neuroscientists to develop brain-computer interfaces.

All this excitement does not mean that Brain Awareness Week is superfluous. This year, this is a good time to note a few recent advances. In a few months, the Human Connectome Project  will complete its multimodal study of 1,200 healthy adults, including 300 twin pairs. Already, data on over 500 subjects have been made public, creating an unprecedented treasure trove for students who want to explore individual variation in brain pathways. Like the Human Genome Project that created a fundamental map of our genetic sequence, the Human Connectome Project will provide a reference atlas of macro-level brain connections that can be used to study development, diseases, and species differences. Developmental connectomes and disease connectome projects will follow soon.

What’s new from the BRAIN Initiative? The first 58 projects funded by the NIH have launched recently. One project will use wireless nano-stents as sensors to form a vast network in the brain’s blood vessels, developing a GPS map for traffic across the complex networks of the active brain. Another will use focused ultrasound to activate deep brain structures non-invasively. Projects for new imaging tools include attempts to increase spatial resolution one hundred-fold and a method to capture regional activity in active, ambulatory subjects. We don’t know if any of these high risk projects will succeed, but the BRAIN Initiative, like the Apollo program—another great American project—is an opportunity to push the boundaries of how we study this frontier, in this case inner space rather than outer space.

Moving forward, the NIH BRAIN Initiative will develop new tools for invasive recording and stimulating brain activity in patients with neurological disorders. We will be expanding our current efforts to define the different types of brain cells and brain circuits, as well as developing new tools for large-scale recording and decoding of brain circuit activity. BRAIN will be developing a new arm for training scientists in the use of new technologies. And BRAIN will be reaching out to small companies to join the project.

Brain Awareness Week is especially important for NIMH. On behalf of ten institutes at NIH, we are co-leading the BRAIN Initiative along with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. We think that tools that can decode the language of the brain at the speed of thought can also help us diagnose and ultimately treat mental disorders. If mental disorders can be defined as circuit disorders, what some have called “connectopathies,” one of the fruits of the BRAIN Initiative will be the tools to define mental disorders with greater precision. In addition to yielding biomarkers of brain circuit activity, the BRAIN Initiative may ultimately provide non-invasive tools to tune circuits, creating new treatments. Admittedly, this may require a decade of progress not just a “month of expectation.” Brain Awareness Week is an excellent time to celebrate this exciting quest.