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“A new era of exploration...”

Rockefeller University neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, Ph.D., discussed the promise of the BRAIN Initiative at a press conference announcing the first wave of awards, September 30, 2014.

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Cori Bargmann: So what the brain initiative is doing is its adding on to the valuable disease focus of the NIH to give a bigger emphasis on fundamental knowledge about the brain. So that instead of just studying the brain one disease at a time – as important as that is – the NIH will support a sustained effort to examine the whole system and the features that emerge from the brain as a whole, because our brains are not individual little parts. We have a coherent and unified perception of the world that results from all of those parts working together. So what the brain initiative is trying to do, and what the science is doing, is to build on the knowledge of the past 50 years, to unify dispersed kinds of knowledge and meet in the middle – at the level of the circuits and networks of nerve cells of nerve cells that transmit information through the brain. So on the one hand, we know a lot about molecules and individual neurons at a microscopic level. On the other hand, we know about brain functions like memory and emotion at a higher cognitive level. And the BRAIN Initiative wants to bring those things in the middle, to the level of groups of interacting neurons, interacting brain regions – the incredible flow of information through those brain regions that allows brain functions to emerge.

Now doing that has involved a whole set of changes in the way that neuroscience has to be done. It can’t be business as usual to do this kind of project. And there’s been a stimulation of a new culture of collaboration, where groups of people will be working together. And the NIH BRAIN Initiative involves a lot of collaborative groups that include both traditional biologists and people like physicists and engineers, working together to solve problems. So there are different kinds of expertise. There’s more of a sense of cooperation. And there’s a big emphasis on sharing both new technologies and new results as quickly as possible, to advance the field and to accelerate discoveries. And that’s a new thing for the field that is also very exciting to see take shape. And it’s been great that the NIH has been willing to look out and not just in to develop a scientific vision and collaboration with the scientific community. And then, once that vision was developed to really shape it into a set of specific goals – but then not impose those from the top but just to open the doors to let the best ideas emerge in a bottom-up, competitive way. To just let the very best ideas win. And you can see the results of that in the projects that are now being funded, because they are exciting and they’re imaginative and they’re very diverse. And they’re diverse in the kinds of people who are involved. They include ….Some of the project leaders of these flagship projects are people who are just a couple of years after their Ph.D.s – young scientists starting out with a whole new approach to a problem. And some of them are the distinguished leaders of the field who’ve been in it for a long time. And many of these come from people who’ve changed fields, who haven’t really been neuroscientists before. And so, I think that the idea of starting something to promote interest in the field has been very successful, looking at this first round of grants.

So, as Francis mentioned, the first goal of the BRAIN Initiative is really to stimulate technology. And there are all kinds of technology, I would say. Advances in optics and microscopy, driven by physicists. Advances in recording, driven by engineers. Real molecular biology tool kits, where the power of molecular genetics is being brought to the brain in a more sophisticated way. There are new ways of observing activity in the brain. There are new approaches to the human brain, which are going to be so important for understanding uniquely human abilities and human brain disorders.

I myself, as a scientist, am most excited about some of the first visions of science that are being explored here. There projects here to explore deep parts of the brain that are effectively terra incognita – that are crucial however for processes like action and emotion and motivation, that we have not been able to study in the deep brain before. And at the same time, there are parts of the brain that are some of the highest parts of the brain – involved in complex fluid operations, like working memory, that are going to be addressed in detail.

So, in summary: Just to say this is the first step in a long-term commitment. It’s been exciting to watch the commitment develop. It’s exciting to see that this will happen. It’s going to take much more than one year and one set of grants. The real cracking of scientific problems of importance is something that takes ten years, at least, not really one. And, in fact, we may still be studying the brain a hundred years from now – but with a new kind of understanding. I think we’re all excited and impatient to use the new tools that are emerging for studying new problems and how the brain works. It’s a new era of exploration of inner space instead of outer space.