Local scientists on brain mapping dream team reflect on challenges, opportunity

In September 2011, a group of “nano” people focused on engineering materials at the smallest scales and “neuro” folks who study the black box of the brain gathered at Chicheley Hall outside London for a meeting. It was something of a scientific mixer—an attempt to bridge the gap between two fields that sat on the scientific equivalent of different continents.

One of the attendees who had dabbled in both fields, Harvard Medical School genome pioneer George Church, saw it as a fun meet-and-greet, although he wasn’t convinced it would lead to anything bigger.

But early on, California Institute of Technology physics professor Michael Roukes laid out a possible convergent frontier for the two fields: Nanoscientists were developing ever-more-capable technologies, which could enable a generation of new sensors that could record activity from thousands or millions of brain cells. He threw out the idea that there might be a parallel to the human genome project: the technology had evolved in nanoscience to the point where it could enable a “massive assault on complex biology,” similar to what had happened as DNA sequencing had scaled up.

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The neuroscientists and the nanoscientists happened to have in their midst Church, an experienced technology developer who had been instrumental in the genome project.

“It was great having George in the audience,” Roukes said, because instead of focusing on the biological ways neurophysiology and the genome were different, the scientists could focus on the readiness of the technology.

“The question is are we ready to actually begin?’ Roukes recalled. “Is the time right to tackle the next complex quest in biology?”

The answer in the room was yes. It was an unusual setting for a major US science initiative to start: on foreign soil, at a meeting that brought together scientists who were outliers in each others’ worlds. But on Tuesday morning, before an audience of top scientists, President Obama laid out support for an initiative called BRAIN (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) and announced $100 million in funding for the first year.

“There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember,” Obama said. “And that knowledge could be—will be—transformative.”

The initiative has garnered plenty of attention since Obama first mentioned it in his State of the Union address and it was reported by the New York Times in February. The initiative has also raised plenty of questions, since it is still fairly unclear what its initial primary scientific goals will be. A handful of published papers have described new technologies that range from the plausible to the far-fetched, which could be used to monitor activity in the brain. But which technologies will be chosen, and at what level of detail the mapping should take place remains unclear.

At a press conference Tuesday, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, said that would be hammered out by a “dream team” of 15 scientists who will hold their first meeting at the end of the month.

Eve Marder, a neuroscientist from Brandeis University and a member of the dream team, said that there are multiple visions that will be debated at that first meeting, but there are several basic, shared principles that she thinks will guide the process of hashing out the essential goals and short-term milestone.

“It’s pretty clear that we need another quantum leap of technology development, technology theory, methods development to go still to the next step,” Marder said.

Marder said that when she first got involved in the effort, during a meeting in early 2012 in Santa Monica, Calif., she was skeptical. The scientists in the room were talking about a big grand challenge that could be embraced by the White House.

“I think some of the people there were hoping [for this], and I thought they were living on the moon,” Marder said. To her delight, her doubts turned out to be unfounded, and Marder said she hopes that the initiative will be seen as a strong signal to a generation of young scientists who may have been disillusioned by the tight funding environment.

The tricky question, she said, will be in determining what the nuts and bolts of the project should be. A $100 million investment is significant, but far from enough money to achieve the end goals of the project, so the BRAIN initiative will depend on sustained—and increasing—investment.

Church, who is not a member of the dream team, said one of his concerns is that the effort may become “siloed.” There’s a tendency, he said, for neurobiologists to surround themselves with other neurobiologists, whereas the idea’s strength draws largely from its interdisciplinary origins.

John Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University who has worked on developing ways to enable paralyzed people to manipulate robotic arms using only their minds, said that while the analogy to the genome project is powerful in some ways, it fails in others.

“I’m not a fan of using that analogy; it was a different problem,” Donoghue said. “I think there are always lessons to be learned when groups of people get together to do ambitious things that involve biology and technology. But I don’t think we should work heavily on drawing parallels.”

Yet others said the genome analogy was apt, because the technology is at a pivotal point when it can be massively scaled up, just as it was when the genome project was launched.

Joshua Sanes, director of the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University, and another member of the BRAIN dream team, said the initiative represents a heartening shift at at a time when people who do fundamental, curiosity-driven science feel under pressure as the burgeoning field of “translational” research has grown and drawn funding.

“I think the basic research community is wondering whether people are paying enough attention to the fact that maybe what we know now isn’t going to cure all disease, even with infinite translation,” Sanes said. “And maybe we’re not kind of keeping a pipeline going that will provide the basic information or the serendipitous discoveries for the diseases we don’t know how to cure. And I would say autism and schizophrenia may be among them; it’s possible what we’ve learned is fundamentally inadequate.”