NPR logo BRAIN Initiative Bets On Wearable Scanners, Laser-Controlled Cells

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BRAIN Initiative Bets On Wearable Scanners, Laser-Controlled Cells

The BRAIN Initiative aims to accelerate basic research.
Andrew Ostrovsky/iStockphoto

Eighteen months after its launch, President Obama's plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain is finally taking shape. During separate events Tuesday, the White House and National Institutes of Health offered details about which projects are being funded and why.

At a morning press conference, NIH officials announced $46 million in grant awards to more than 100 investigators. Most of the researchers are working on tools that can "transform how we study the brain," said NIH Director Francis Collins.

Among the grants:

  • Researchers at West Virginia University will try to engineer a "wearable PET scanner" intended to monitor the brain activity of people while they do things like take a walk in the park.
  • Several teams will develop systems that use lasers to control the activity of individual cells and circuits in the brain.
  • A team from the Allen Institute for Brain Science will attempt to characterize the different cell types in brain circuits involved in vision and other sensations.
  • Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will try to adapt functional MRI so that it can show the activity of individual brain cells.

Researchers badly need new tools like these because, despite recent advances, the brain is still an enigma, said Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institutes of Health. "Relative to what we know about the heart and the kidney and the liver, we don't even have a parts list for the brain," he said. "This is a time of discovery."

Today, "we can look at hundreds or even thousands of neurons, but we need [to be able to look at] millions," said Cornelia Bargmann of The Rockefeller University during an afternoon media event at the White House. "The tools need to be 100 times better than they are now."

The BRAIN Initiative is an attempt to push science ahead very quickly and to involve investigators who haven't previously been involved in brain research, Collins said. As a result, grants went to physicists and engineers as well as researchers in the biological sciences.

The effort is likely to take a decade or more and to cost at least $4.5 billion, Collins said. He described the effort as a "moon shot," but one with the potential to dramatically improve treatments for problems ranging such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, epilepsy and autism.

In May, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced $70 million in contracts related to the BRAIN Initiative. These included development of implanted devices intended to treat problems including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.