New initiative for brain research proposed

President Barack Obama proposed the BRAIN – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – initiative last week, asking Congress to spend $100 million to develop technology that would accurately map what each individual cell in the brain is responsible for.

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, with about 100 billion cells, and most of it still remains unknown.

Specific goals of the project are still under development, but many possible benefits could come from its success, including finding better ways to treat various neurological disorders.

William Cullinan, dean of the College of Health Sciences, said the project could be groundbreaking if the proposed technology is successful in finding new ways to understand how systems and networks of neuronal activity are coordinated and how they correlate with the mental state of the individual.

One of the criticisms of the initiative, Cullinan said, is that there is no way to judge what a successful project would look like in its completion. He said he nevertheless believes in its success.

“The project is a good investment toward developing necessary technologies to accelerate fundamental discoveries linking brain states to behavior,” Cullinan said. “The initiative could ultimately lead to better treatments for many brain disorders.”

The National Institute of Health is establishing an advisory committee to help shape the initiative. According to the National Institute of Health, the group will produce an interim report by fall 2013 that will contain recommendations for high-priority investment.

Jordan Blacktop, a fifth-year graduate student in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the proposed initiative is a conscious effort to streamline funds to scientists in an attempt to make significant progress in understanding the brain.

“This will most likely not just yield a putative map; (it) will further our understanding as to how our current perception of the brain has stymied neuroscientific progress,” Blacktop said. “Although this to some seems to be overambitious and a drop in the bucket, it is movement in the proper direction.”

Blacktop said he sees the project being successful because of the funding and the personnel who are proposed to be working on it.

“It is important to connect the brain to all sciences, for it is one in the same,” Blacktop said. “When we talk about the brain, we are involving all science, from biophysical to astrophysical.”

Kristina Ropella, the executive associate dean in the College of Engineering, said the emphasis on brain mapping is exciting and overdue.

“We have so much yet to discover about how the brain works, and we have many people with mental health concerns for which we offer little help.” Ropella said. “Research has done so much for the health of other organ systems, but we have neglected the brain for too long because of social stigma and lack of good technologies.”

Ropella said new advances in brain mapping will require the multidisciplinary efforts of physicians, scientists, engineers and many others to work together to advance the technology to the point where it can be used to understand the brain’s function.

“We already have some strong teams of researchers and clinicians here at Marquette and the Medical College of Wisconsin who have been leading the nation in developing imaging technologies for mapping brain function and investigating neurorehabilitation,” Ropella said.

Ropella said she hopes a significant breakthrough will result from the research to help people who live with abnormal brain function.

“Too many of the drugs and therapies we use today are ineffective,” Ropella said.

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