Physicists Ready to Add Their BRAIN Power

By Michael Lucibella

Physicists are poised to play a major role in President Obama’s proposal to better understand the human brain. The president recently proposed allocating $100 million for the initiative, to be divided among the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Though the specific goals of the project are still being determined, they will likely include developing new techniques to map and study the brain.

Scientists involved with shaping the BRAIN Initiative, short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the research.

“Many of the advances, if not most of the advances, come from the physical sciences,” said Michael Roukes, of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at Caltech. He added that physicists are adept at “thinking about complex highly correlated systems of networks.”

Roukes was part of the Kavli team that first suggested to the administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy the idea for a project to map the neural connections in the human brain. Their original Brain Activity Map proposal, which the president highlighted in his State of the Union address in February, evolved into the White House’s BRAIN Initiative.

“It is a very auspicious time for using advances that have accrued in the last couple of decades in nanoscience and nanotech and assembling a new generation of tools that will enable a great leap forward in neuroscience,” Roukes said.

Other researchers said physicists were the key to developing the next generation of measurement and diagnostic tools.

“This is mostly physicists. Physicists are a principal driver in the effort to understand brain activity,” said Tim Harris, director of the Applied Physics and Instrumentation Group at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “This is a tool-making problem; this is not a biology project. We do not have the tools to measure brain activity properly. So the question is how do we make the tools.”

Representatives from DARPA declined to comment directly, but a statement posted on the DARPA website said, “DARPA plans to explore two key areas to elicit further understanding of the brain. New tools are needed to measure and analyze electrical signals and the biomolecular dynamics underpinning brain function. Researchers will also explore, abstract and model the vast spectrum of brain functions by examining its incredible complexity.”

Physicists, in increasing numbers, have been working with neuroscientists to improve the way doctors and neurologists probe the brain.

“Physicists have for the last 10 or 15 years realized there are lots of interesting measurement problems in biology,” Harris said. “It’s a much messier problem. The brain is just way gooier than a proton beam.”

Administration officials are meeting with researchers to decide on a concrete set of goals for the initiative.

Because the money will be split among three different research agencies, it is unclear how, or even whether, they will coordinate with each other. In addition, researchers say that while the $100 million is appreciated, it’s a relatively small amount that is not likely to be fundamentally game-changing.  

“[It’s] a modest amount of funding being added to an ongoing research problem,” Harris said.

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