The Thinking Behind Obama's BRAIN Initiative

The ambitious brain-mapping proposal could develop new imaging tools

2 min read
The Thinking Behind Obama's BRAIN Initiative

On Tuesday, after weeks of buzz in the neuroscience community, President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative to map activity and connections within the brain. Obama's 2014 budget proposal will include $100 million to jumpstart this "big science" initiative, which builds on researchers' interest in understanding the neural circuits that are activated when we perceive, think, and act.

Though the U.S. government is already funding a similar $40-million venture called the Human Connectome Project, even the HCP scientists say the new program can fill gaps in current research. 

In his announcement, Obama compared the neuroscience initiative to the Human Genome Project that finished sequencing the entire human genome a decade ago this month. However, unless there are stunning and unanticipated breakthroughs in brain imaging over the next few years, the BRAIN Initiative won't result in a comprehensive map of the roughly 86 billion neurons in the human brain and the trillions of connections between them. In fact, its results may primarily illuminate the brains of fruit flies and zebrafish. 

BRAIN, the acronym, stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies; the name is fitting, say researchers, because the effort's real focus may be on developing new imaging tools that let scientists look at the brain in new ways. 

"The Human Connectome Project produces images at one resolution, using real-world technologies that exist today," explains Daniel Marcus, an investigator with one branch of the HCP who also heads the Neuroinformatics Research Group at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "What Obama was talking about was, 'Let’s invent the next level of tools that enable us to look at the brain with a much higher level of resolution.'"

between individual neurons. "When we see something light up, it’s representing tens of thousands of cells," says Marcus. "There are also already existing technologies that can look at individual cells, or even dozens of cells, but there’s this massive range in between that we don't have the tools to look at." The BRAIN Initiative could build imaging tools that provide a certain Goldilocks-like resolution—neither too close nor too far. 

Images: J. Lichtman for the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University; David Van Essen for the WU-Minn HCP Consortium

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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