President Obama Calls For A BRAIN Initiative

This week President Obama announced his BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which the White House describes as "a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind." National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins describes the new research plan.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Early this week, President Obama announced a new research initiative focused on the human brain. Here he is talking about it at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, as humans, we can identify galaxies light years away. We can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears. But today, scientists possess the capability to study individual neurons and figure out the main functions of certain areas of the brain. But a human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons, making trillions of connections. So Dr. Collins says it's like listening to the strings section and trying to figure out what the whole orchestra sounds like. So as a result, we're still unable to cure diseases like Alzheimer's or autism, or fully reverse the effects of a stroke. And the most powerful computer in the world isn't nearly as intuitive as the one we're born with.

So there's 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. And that knowledge could be - will be - transformative.

FLATOW: Joining me now to talk more about that announcement is the man that President Obama mentioned in that clip, Francis Collins. He's director of the National Institutes of Health. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Collins.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Hi, Ira. Nice to be with you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tell us about - the president mentioned we need tools. What tools, specifically, were he talking about?

COLLINS: Yeah. Well, we can already measure the activities of individual neurons and watch them firing and see what causes that to happen. And we have tools that allow us to image the brain of an intact living individual at a sort of 20,000-foot level. But we need tools to be able to see what goes on in between, to understand how circuits made up of hundreds of thousands of neurons conduct the various activities that they can manage, such as in initiating voluntary motion, visual processing, the ability to lay down a memory and retrieve it. That means you need tools that can sample simultaneously from very large numbers of neurons and do so in real time, not in a static fashion but a dynamic fashion. And those haven't, for the most part, been invented yet. Although a lot of progress is being made, it is going to be, certainly in the early stages, an initiative where technology development is going to be front and center.

FLATOW: Well, because we have imaging tools now, don't we? We have scanners and stuff. Are they just not definitive enough that we need these other ones?

COLLINS: No, there's starting...

FLATOW: For lack of a better word, I can't...

COLLINS: Yeah. There's starting in that direction, and if you actually look at some of the things we can do - the connectome, for instance. If you want to Google on connectome and look up, you can see some gorgeous pictures that are being made, of the wiring diagram of the human brain, showing you how the wire move from front to back and up and down, side to side. But again, it's a static picture. It'd be like, you know, taking your laptop and prying the top off and staring at the parts inside, you'd be able to say, yeah, this is connected to that, but you wouldn't know how it worked.

If you really want to know how the brain works, you have to have much more multi-parallel methods of being able to sample activities at a level of precision that we just don't currently possess. And, obviously, a lot of this is going to have be done, initially, on simpler systems to try to learn the rules, the language of the brain before we could tackle something as complicated as a human, but it's time to start.

FLATOW: Yeah. And, you know, the president compared this to the Human Genome Project, and $100 million doesn't sound like a lot of money in Washington.

COLLINS: Well, let's be clear. The $100 million is the first year. That's what's in his budget, he says, which is going to be released next week. And that's $40 million for NIH, that's $50 million for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, and 20 for NSF. But that's year one. Year one of the genome project - people have forgotten this - was $28 million. You have to start by a ramp up. We don't know where the BRAIN Initiative will go in terms of its full funding, because we don't as yet have a clearly laid out set of scientific milestones, goals, timetables and deliverables. We put together dream team that Cori Bargmann and Bill Newsome are going to lead to get that laid out, but that's going to take probably the better part of the year.

FLATOW: And Bill Newsome is actually quoted in Wired, as Stanford is saying, quote, "another criticism is that this whole business of recording every neuron in the brain of some animal has this moon-shot quality to it, but it's not well thought out. You don't actually need to record every neuron because so many are redundant. What you really need is strategic sampling at different points in the brain."

COLLINS: And Bill's a very smart guy, and I would not put myself in anywhere near the same category as a neuroscientist as he is, and I think he's probably right. If you knew how to do this appropriate sampling, you could infer the mechanisms by which these circuits conduct business. But it is nice, in simpler systems, where you can do so, collect all the data.

Very beautiful videos just came out in the paper in Nature Methods by Ahrens and Keller where they basically looked at a zebra fish larva, and they were able to image 80 percent of the neurons in that fish, about 100,000 of them, and watch them firing in real time because they engineered that fish so that each time the neuron fired, it let off a little flash of light. It is really quite dramatic to look at those and watch to see what's happening in the whole organism as its nervous system is undergoing some sort of activity. We don't quite know what the fish is doing, but it's beautiful to look at.

FLATOW: What kind of new research will come out of this, because a lot of this research is already being done and funded by the government, by NIH, by different people?

COLLINS: It is.

FLATOW: What is the new stuff we want to do?

COLLINS: Right. And, of course, we were studying a lot of research before the genome project came along too. The parallel is pretty good here in terms of the intention. The intention is to layout some very ambitious goals, particularly in technology development, to recruit additional experts into the field to make those goals possible, to make sure that we have clearly laid out a plan that puts things in the right order, and to speed up the process of actually getting insights that are going to change our understanding of autism, epilepsy, Parkinson's and so on. That's the goal.

It's not as if this is going to be a big effort that transforms all of neuroscience. This $100 million is, after all, about one percent - the NIH part of it - of what we're already spending on neuroscience. But as an effort to coordinate and have a focus on the things that are still missing in our assault on understanding the brain.

FLATOW: And maybe have a brain drain into the - draining the brain of neuroscience, bringing more people in.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: Well - yeah, right. We'd like to have a brain that moves in the right direction, not the wrong direction.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Dr. Collins, thank you very much, as always, for taking time to be with us today.

COLLINS: Ah, you're welcome, Ira. It's nice to talk to you.

FLATOW: Dr. Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institutes of Health. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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