Updated March 25 at 12:28am
life sciences

Brown profs. attend White House brain initiative announcement


WASHINGTON – When President Obama announced his new $100 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative from the East Room at the White House on April 2, two Brown University professors, who had helped to plan this sweeping new vision for brain research, attended the ceremony.

John Donoghue, the Henry Merrit Wriston Professor of neuroscience and engineering at Brown directs the Brown Institute for Brain Science and has been part of a team of researchers from academic institutions, who helped plan out the initiative in partnership with the White House.

Joining him was Arto Nurmikko, an engineering professor at Brown, who has been involved in creating the nanoscale toolkit needed to study the brain.

The Brain initiative, which has been likened to the Human Genome Project, is broad attempt to better understand how the brain works, according to Donoghue, who will now serve on a committee advising National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on the initiative.

“We believe that the time is right to focus inquiry on the ‘middle scale’ of brain function where interesting features such as cognition or complex behavior emerge from the interactions that occur in large circuits of neurons,” Donoghue said, after the ceremony.

The funding to support this effort will come from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to the White House.

The NIH plans to establish a high-level working group co-chaired by Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University and William Newsome of Stanford University to define detailed scientific goals and to develop a multi-year scientific plan, including timetables, milestones, and cost estimates.

Partners with the Brain initiative will include companies, foundations and private research institutions such as the Allen Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, according to the White House.

“Higher brain functions emerge at the scale of networks of neurons; brain disorders such as dementia, epilepsy or schizophrenia appear to result when networks fail to operate correctly,” said Donoghue, describing the importance of the initative.

“There is a gap in our knowledge about brain network function because we lack the tools to study large numbers of neurons spread over large regions of the brain,” said Donoghue. “Remarkable advances in nanoengineering, optobiology, and synthetic biology have the potential to provide a set of tools that would allow us to study the brain at this new level.”

Nurmikko and Donoghue have been part of the team of faculty and students at Brown that helped to create a brain computer interface called BrainGate.

“BrainGate is designed to reconnect the brain to the outside world for people with paralysis,” Donoghue said. “We recently showed that a person unable to move her limbs after a stroke could use her thoughts to control a robot arm well enough to pick up and drink her morning coffee.”

The understanding resulting from the BRAIN initiative, Donoghue continued, could dramatically enhance the kind of control that can be achieved and even allow a person with paralysis to once again move their own limbs. “The neuroengineering advances of Nurmikko and his students will make it possible to implant the electronics needed to use BrainGate inside the body and communicate wirelessly,” Donoghue said.

Discoveries through the Brain initiative have the potential to make this technology better, faster, and smaller, said Donoghue.

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