Solving the Brain: Animal research at the frontiers of Neuroscience

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the important role played by animal research in neuroscience, a post we published to mark Brain Awareness Week earlier this year covered but a tiny fraction of the work being done around the world. Meanwhile some neuroscientists have been thinking big…very big…with the launch of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative in the USA and the Human Brian Project in the EU, projects that aim to transform neuroscience and accelerate the discovery of novel therapies for neurological disorders. Within the neuroscience world there has been a lot of discussion and debate over whether now really is the right time to launch this initiative,  and whether the budgets allocated are anywhere near large enough to fulfil the ambitious aims, but as the dust settles a little and it becomes clear that these projects will – at least initially – focus on developing research techniques and infrastructure, it is useful to take a look at what is being planned.

Optogenetics is one technology helping scientists to unlock the brain's secrets.
Optogenetics is one technology helping scientists to unlock the brain’s secrets.

In Nature this week Alison Abbott has spoken to several of the main players in these programs in the USA and Europe, and the very first paragraph highlights their ambitious nature.

When neurobiologist Bill Newsome got a phone call from Francis Collins in March, his first reaction was one of dismay. The director of the US National Institutes of Health had contacted him out of the blue to ask if he would co-chair a rapid planning effort for a ten-year assault on how the brain works. To Newsome, that sounded like the sort of thankless, amorphous and onerous task that would ruin a good summer. But after turning it over in his mind for 24 hours, his dismay gave way to enthusiasm. “The timing is right,” says Newsome, who is based at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. He accepted the task. “The brain is the intellectual excitement for the twenty-first century.”

We strongly encourage you to head over to Nature and read the whole article, which provides a great introduction to the different challenges – both scientific and technical – that neuroscientists face, and how they are planning to overcome them.

Alison’s article also highlights the crucial role that animal research will play in this effort, in developing the technologies that the BRAIN Initiative describes:

While these technological innovations have contributed substantially to our expanding knowledge of the brain, significant breakthroughs in how we treat neurological and psychiatric disease will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds. This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics, and other rapidly emerging fields of science

New techniques such as optogenetics that allow researchers to precisely control the activity of individual neurons,  CLARITY and  Scale that make tissue transparent so previously hidden connections within the brain become visible, and advanced electrode technology that has allowed the development of neuroprobes that can measure the activity of over a hundred individual neurons simultaneously (earlier versions of which are being used to develop treatments for paralysis), will all play an important role in these programmes, alongside powerful brain imaging technologies and the supercomputers and computational techniques needed to process and make sense of the vast amounts of data that they will yield.

The ambition of these projects is laudable, but it will not be achieved without a lot of investment, and there lies the problem. While $100 million was invested in the BRAIN initiative at it’s launch, this sum was dwarfed by the $1.5 billion slashed from The NIH’s budget by sequestration in March, and promising neuroscientists who might have made great contributions to understanding the brain are no doubt going to be among those whose careers are cut short by lack of funding.  This crisis at a time when we should be looking forward with hope and excitement shows why it is so important to make sure that your political representative understands that to secure future health and prosperity we need #curesnotcuts.

Speaking of Research

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