The National Institutes of Health has announced funding for 110 new awards totaling $169 million for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, bringing the total 2017 funding investment for the program to $260 million. Maps of whole brains in action, the ability to identify thousands of brain cells at a time, and innovative brain scanners are just a few of the advances funded by the groundbreaking effort. In the past three years, research under the initiative has advanced so rapidly that this year many of the previously funded individual projects will receive expanded support to achieve the ambitious goals of the BRAIN Initiative.
“Understanding the way the brain processes information and how it lays down memories and retrieves them will be instrumental for understanding brain health, and ultimately, preventing brain disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “These awards add to work already underway to give us a high-resolution picture of the circuits and networks in the brain, how they work, and where they can go wrong.”
Launched in 2013, the BRAIN Initiative is a large-scale effort to push the boundaries of neuroscience research and equip scientists with insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. Awarded to more than 178 investigators working at 56 institutions representing fields as diverse as engineering and psychology, this year’s funding will expand NIH’s efforts to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action. While some have worked directly on the human brain others have tested tools and developed animal and computational models that help a wide range of researchers study the brain.
“Thanks to the rapid advances in neuroscience research, the BRAIN Initiative is entering a new phase, as we fully fund groundbreaking projects that were exploratory just a few years ago,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “The imaginative science performed in individual laboratories remains the backbone of BRAIN, but the neuroscience community now has the unique opportunity to take on groundbreaking projects that can only be completed by teams of scientists working together.”
New awards will build on significant progress already made through the BRAIN Initiative
Cell Census projects – brain inventory lists and much more
To fully understand the brain, researchers need to have a thorough list of all its parts or cell types. In 2014, the NIH BRAIN Initiative supported several Cell Census pilot projects . Within a year of receiving their grants, some teams showed that by using high-throughput, single cell genetic analysis techniques it is possible to simultaneously identify thousands of brain cell types in one shot. For instance, one group showed that by using microscopic balls of fat labeled with DNA bar codes to sequence active genes they could rapidly find new and established cell types in a mouse retina, the eye tissue that converts light into nerve signals . Meanwhile another group showed that they could classify new neurons in the frontal cortex by simultaneously reading the chemical tags, of each cell’s DNA .
In addition, these projects made some unexpected discoveries. Within a year of the recent Zika virus outbreak, one group used high-throughput, single cell genetic analysis techniques not only to understand how the virus may harm a baby’s brain but also to discover a potential treatment . Some teams used advanced genomic techniques to provide new insights into Down Syndrome and schizophrenia . And one group used single cell genetic labels to precisely map the brain circuits that control mouse movements and emotions .
In short, what used to take scientists years to do now can be done within weeks. These and other methods will form the basis of the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network.
The human brain
How do we think? What happens when a part of our brain stops working? Several projects have successfully taken the first steps to understanding the human brain, the greatest challenge and the highest goal of the BRAIN Initiative.
Current brain scanners are large, uncomfortable, loud, and require people to remain still for a long time, making it difficult to accurately study the brain. To address these difficulties, one BRAIN Initiative group laid the foundation for developing a portable MRI machine designed to scan the brain. For their pilot project the team made a prototype scanner that could simultaneously send and receive electromagnetic signals which will help make it much smaller than current machines. Initial results showed the scanner could take pictures peoples’ brains. In the future, this group will work on making the scanner lighter and mobile .
Meanwhile, other projects will continue to focus on developing first-of-a-kind imaging tools that would take more detailed pictures of the human brain. One group is developing a novel method for using magnetic particles to study brain activity with much higher sensitivity than MRI while the other is aiming to dramatically improve MRI methods to allow for faster imaging times and more accurate pictures of the human brain .
Whole brain activity mapping
Another major goal of the NIH BRAIN Initiative is to help scientists thoroughly map the activity of an entire brain. BRAIN Initiative researchers have developed new tools to help researchers do this, including engineering genes and building microscopes that allow scientists to watch the electrical signals in neurons as they happen. Using these tools, scientists witnessed neurons in mice and flies electrically fire in response to flashing images and lights. NIH will also support several teams of scientists that will leverage these kinds of tools to make major advances in our understanding of how brain circuits control memories , reflexes , movements and decision making .
BRAIN Initiative researchers have also shown that it is possible to chart complete brain maps. Two projects will now work together to provide a complete atlas of the see-through zebrafish brain . One group has mapped zebrafish brains firing as the fish swam and changed directions in response to flashing images. Meanwhile, the second group used ultra high-resolution charting techniques to map out the wiring of a mouse brain region that controls movements . Their results suggested that neurons communicate exclusively with very specific partners despite having several neighbors. Through this project, these two groups hope to learn how a brain works in these model organisms and to help researchers eventually map out human brains.
“Remember that we are still just in the tooling-up phase of this ambitious effort,” said Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., director of NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health. “The aim is to have the BRAIN Initiative spur progress in neuroscience much like the NIH’s Human Genome Project did for genetics.”
The NIH BRAIN Initiative is managed by 10 Institutes whose missions and current research portfolios complement the goals of the BRAIN Initiative: NCCAM, NEI, NIA, NIAAA, NIBIB, NICHD, NIDA, NIDCD, NIMH, and NINDS.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit the NIH website .
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