By Joe Tash
In 2011, a scientific foundation with ties to North San Diego County organized a meeting in London to brainstorm ways that neuroscientists, who study the brain and mind, and nanoscientists, who study the smallest objects imaginable, could collaborate on basic research.
An intriguing idea emerged from that initial meeting — what if scientists could map the functions of the human brain, furthering their understanding of the complex circuitry that drives thought, memory, emotions, physical movement and other human behavior?
Last month, the scientists got a major boost when President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative, earmarking about $100 million in his new budget to launch a project aimed at unlocking the secrets of the human brain.
Scientists from San Diego County were closely involved in developing the ideas behind the BRAIN Initiative — which stands for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — and are also likely to participate in some of the research once the project gets going.
Robert Conn, a Del Mar resident and president of the Kavli Foundation, met with Obama twice in the space of a few days in late March and early April, once to honor the 2012 recipients of the Kavli Prize for scientific achievement, and once regarding the BRAIN Initiative.
An underlying message of the presidential attention, said Conn, is that “science matters.”
Conn, a former dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD, has headed the Kavli Foundation for four years. The foundation was established by Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-born businessman who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s.
If scientists can figure out how the brain’s trillions of neural connections work to coordinate and control mind and body functions, Conn said, they may also come up with treatments or cures for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to autism.
Scientists also believe the research could lead to technological breakthroughs in the interaction of humans and machines, said Miyoung Chun, Kavli Foundation vice president and organizer of the initial scientific meeting in London in 2011. Practical applications could include better prosthetic devices for amputees and people paralyzed by strokes.
“If we’ve learned anything from scientific research over the last 100 years, in the end it makes an extraordinary difference to the quality of our lives, the health and well being of people and, maybe just as importantly, the economic health of a country,” Conn said.
Chun said the excitement generated by the president’s announcement and the meeting with Obama at the White House was tempered by the realization of how much work needs to be done to make the project a success.
“The scientists now have perhaps the greatest challenge of their entire career in front of them,” said Chun, who has helped author papers about the project and presented the idea to contacts at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Obama and others have compared the brain mapping project to the Human Genome Project, which identified the genetic codes that determine our unique characteristics. In the case of the brain mapping project, scientists said, one of the key challenges is developing tools that can monitor and measure hundreds and thousands of neurons as they fire and interact in real time. Another challenge will be creating computer programs that can analyze tremendous amounts of data gathered from observations of brain function.
Ralph Greenspan, a researcher at UCSD who serves as associate director of the university’s Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind — one of 16 such academic institutes funded by the Kavli Foundation — attended the London meeting in 2011 and recalled that scientists talked for two days without making much progress. Then George Church, a researcher who worked on the Human Genome Project, said he had heard his colleagues discuss what they could do, but not what they dreamed of doing if they had the right technology.
“That started the really lively conversation,” Greenspan said. A neuroscientist said he wanted to be able to record the activity of every neuron, or nerve cell, in the brain (estimated at 100 billion) at the same time. Current technology, said Greenspan, allows scientists to monitor and record about 100 neurons at a time.
“We decided this was a great idea,” said Greenspan, whose own research involves studying the brains of fruit flies, which contain about 130,000 neurons.
“The idea is this will spur the development of some useful technologies,” Greenspan said.
Terry Sejnowski, a researcher at the Salk Institute who also has been involved with the brain mapping project, wrote in an email, “The investment being made over the next 15 years in the BRAIN Initiative will create new industrial activity that will rival the biotech industry.”
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, will be one of the leaders of the BRAIN Initiative. Along with the federal money proposed by Obama, private organizations have also pledged resources: $60 million annually from the Allen Institute for Brain Science; $30 million per year from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; $4 million per year for 10 years from the Kavli Foundation; and $28 million from the Salk Institute.