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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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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