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BRAIN Initiative – on MSNBC

May 2nd, 2013, 12:33pm by Sam Wang

I’m currently in heavy neuroscience mode. Here’s one example: the unveiling of the BRAIN Initiative, an NIH/NSF/DARPA/private research initiative announced by President Obama in April. It focuses on new technologies to map brain connectivity and function. Whether there will be new money isn’t clear, but it does highlight some very exciting areas in modern neuroscience.

Dig beneath the public rollout, and there’s a roster of scientific advisors that provides a clue as to where it’s headed. Listed are some of the best leaders and technology developers in understanding circuit-level brain function. It’s a promising start. I predict that next we’ll see new Requests for Applications (RFAs) issued by NIH and NSF. That would be a prosaic route, but without a single central goal…let a hundred flowers bloom!

Finally…here I am on Melissa Harris-Perry’s program to talk about the BRAIN Initiative. NBC has split it into Part 1 (BRAIN Initiative), Part 2 (implications for Alzheimer’s), and Part 3 (what brain scans do — and don’t — reveal in individuals). Watch me spar with the pundits.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Rex

    Professor Wang,

    I once watched a video lecture series that you did for the teaching company on Neuroscience. In it you mentioned that you decided to research the brain as opposed to physics because the amount of breakthroughs in physics had been on the decline since the 1920s(I’m obviously paraphrasing) and that our understanding of the brain would start to grow by leaps and bounds in the course of our lifetime. What new understandings of the brain do you expect to see in the next 50 or so years?

    • Sam Wang

      Rex, here are a few possibilities:
      (1) A general understanding of what all ~100 brain regions do in relation to one another, with circuit specificity. The brain is not one organ, but hundreds (accessory olive, amygdala, anterior cingulate…). A finer-grained understanding is needed! The same goes for cellular-level algorithms for how a circuit processes information.
      (2) Understanding mental illness at a brain region-specific level, well enough to address therapies to a specific anatomical location.
      (3) Development of technologies to understand — in nonhuman animals — exactly how new experiences are laid down as circuits and connections. Also, how memories are reprocessed over time. This is less likely to happen in humans, but the ideas will generalize enough to give deep insights.
      (4) At least one disorder that affects >1% of the population will be understood all the way from genetic/cellular causes to the brain going off the rails. Three prominent candidates are Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and mood disorders.
      (5) Perhaps most important is to take advantage of what we already know at a societal level! I hope for greater public understanding of neuroscience at the educational level. As indicated in my response to Amitabh Lath, in my view the excitement and substance of neuroscience have not percolated to K-12 education. This is a massive opportunity not to be lost.

  • bks

    I’ll predict that there will be no progress in defining “mental illness” in the next 50 years.


    • Sam Wang

      I am confident that you will be wrong. Current research in areas including genetic causes, environmental risks, and neural circuit and systems analysis will lay foundations for treatments. Where treatments improve, reclassification will follow.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Nice interview. I loved the part where you called MHP for her “science fiction” worries about brain scans revealing a criminal’s chance of recividism. Ugh. Maybe you can find a “correct probabilistic estimation” circuit (it will be off in most people).

    I’m a little confused if this BRAIN initiative is actually real new money or just reorganizing and renaming current neuro funding (which is probably already greater than $100M all told, no?)

    What happens in the best scenario? More tenure track lines at universities? Or maybe an extra postdoc or two for established groups?

    The post-Sputnik push into science involved large sums of money distributed all the way from universities down to K-12. Many of my professors at MIT were “sputnik babies” who benefited from the emphasis on science when they were kids.

    • Sam Wang

      Confusion is natural, considering the following sequence of events: (1) Initial brainstorming among scientists, leading to a $3 billion/10 years proposal. (2) A rollout of a White House-initiated announcement for $100 million/year (the “BRAIN Initiative”) consisting of existing funds. (3) The naming of an Advisory Council which, I hope, will sharpen the idea into a proper proposal.

      I think there will be moderate increases in funding, simply because it’s exciting and, in the larger research picture, not that expensive to fund. In the best scenario, it will play out as Requests For Applications for grants. I would prefer to see it as more postdocs on the grounds that growth should be controlled. But there is some chance of more PIs as well.

      Regarding Sputnik: that is excellent. We must inspire young people regarding the value of science. Neuroscience seems poised to take that role. When I visit schools the reaction is intense and positive. Yet neuroscience does not have a prominent role at that level. Physics is grand and monumental, but not the expanding frontier it was 50 years ago.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Real new money would be wonderful. I do not subscribe to the zero-sum theory of science funding; science is such a small part of the funding ecosystem that we all (biology, physics, etc) rise and fall together. The more the public gets excited by science (any science) the better.

      I have been going to local high schools to discuss the Higgs discovery. Most students do not know they can be part of real research groups at top tier research universities right here in NJ.

    • Sam Wang

      Exactly. Also…basic research money is generally not given by Congress in a zero-sum manner, since federal agencies come under different Appropriations bills. For example, if NIH gains, NSF will not have money taken away. However, NIH’s money does come out of the same pot as Head Start, heating assistance for low-income people, and other health/education-related items.

  • Amitabh Lath

    Add up all the money our species spends on fiction: Movies, TV, books, theater, opera… the creation, production, dissemination and discussion of what are basically tales.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if some fraction (say a few percent) of that effort was spent on finding out stuff that was well, true (aka science)?

    By the way, why do we (human beings) have this need to tell stories?

    • Sam Wang

      Debunking? Oh, I see…no, the OfA data are not mindblowingly good. They caught the general trends, but their graph is pretty coarse-grained. To state the obvious, my graph here is more informative.

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