Local researchers at forefront of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative
by Ethan Orenstein
Published - 04/12/13 - 10:58 AM | 4345 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Salk researchers discovered how the brain keeps track of similar, but distinct, memories. This microscope image shows neural activity in the dentate gyrus, a subsection of the hippocampus where distinct groups of cells were active during the learning episodes (green) and memory retrieval (red). Image courtesy of Wei Deng, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
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President Obama introduced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, Initiative, on April 2, with the goal of increasing research and expanding understanding of the functions of the human brain in order to treat and prevent brain injury and disease.

In attendance at the White House announcement was Salk Institute neuroscientist Terry Sejnowksi. Salk and its researchers were recognized for their work on the human brain, and were identified as some of the leaders of the BRAIN Initiative challenge that lies ahead.

“This initiative is a boost for the brain like the human genome project was for the genes,” Sejnowski said in a statement. “This is the start of the million neuron march.”

With about $100 million dollars in funding supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, and participation from foundations and private institutions, the BRAIN Initiative marks the beginning of a new era in neurological research.

The BRAIN Initiative works in conjunction with Salk’s own Dynamic Brain Initiative, which is focused on gaining a better understanding of the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. As research and technologies advance, scientist can begin to find cures and improve treatments for brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism and blindness. The advances can also reduce the high costs of longterm treatment for brain disorders.

The first step is going to be developing tools capable of mapping and visualizing the entire brain’s systems, circuits and functions.

“We’re not jumping in and mapping the entire active human brain,” Sejnowski said. “But we are at a point where we can develop the tools to map entire circuits, first in invertebrates and eventually in mammals.”

Some of the innovative tools necessary to map the brain are being developed by researchers at the Salk Institute. Salk neuroscientist Edward M. Callaway was able to use a modified rabies virus to examine brain connections involved with vision.

“Scientists have known since the time of Galileo that new tools can open up whole new lines of research,” Callaway said in a statement. “But for us, tools aren’t just mechanical instruments, they can be viruses, genes, chemical dyes or even photons.”

As the initiative gains speed, BRAIN is expected to have an economic impact similar to that of the Human Genome Project, which yielded $800 billion in economic returns form a $3.8 billion investment.

In a statement regarding the initiative, Congressman Scott Peters said San Diego is recognized around the world for its scientists, research institutions and universities.

“The president’s announcement … recognizing San Diego’s scientists and engineers for their achievements in the cognitive science, and selecting them to undertake the daunting task of mapping the human brain, is a testament to the abilities of San Diego’s scientific research community,” Peters said.
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