Leading Neuroscientists Weigh In On Importance of New BRAIN Initiative

The BRAIN Initiative
The BRAIN Initiative

Two Foundation-funded Distinguished Investigators, Eric R. Kandel, M.D. and Rafael Yuste, M.D., Ph.D., both of Columbia University, were among five leaders in neuroscience research asked by the editors of the prestigious journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience to assess several new and highly ambitious big-budget projects that aim to transform our knowledge of the human brain.

Their remarks, appearing in the journal’s September 2013 issue, were sober and realistic, yet strongly encouraging. The new projects discussed include President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project in Europe, both of which are still in the planning stages.

“The long-term goal of these projects is to gain a better understanding” of how the human brain works, Dr. Kandel said. Yet, the 2000 Nobel Prizewinner noted, “there are no precedents for this. The Human Genome Project was important and successfully executed, but it was much simpler.” The goal of the Genome Project had a known end goal―to obtain the whole sequence of nucleotides that makes up the human genome―and was largely a challenge of organization and production. “For these large neuroscience projects, we do not have a genetic code,” Dr. Kandel explains.

In spite of the lofty ambition of the projects, Dr. Kandel underlines the importance of their potential contribution: “The potential impact of these projects is enormous. The most important would be to better understand, and therefore be able to treat, the devastating diseases of the brain that haunt human kind: schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, Alzheimer’s disease... the list goes on.”

According to Dr. Yuste, a current NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee—and one of the six authors of a paper in Neuron in June, 2012 cited by The New York Times as having influenced President Obama’s team to launch a program to "unlock the mysteries of the brain"—says the the BRAIN Initiative will focus on the development of bold new technologies. New technologies will provide the tools to enable novel understanding of how the brain works―in health, but also, importantly, in illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and autism, he explains. “The exact focus is being decided by the three funding agencies involved and their panels of experts and will become clear in a couple of months. I expect it will focus on technologies to perform systematic measurements and manipulations of the activity of large numbers of neurons in animal models and in human patients,” he said.

Dr. Yuste added, “I think that developing novel methods for monitoring and manipulating the activity of neuronal circuits is the best investment one can make today for the future of neuroscience.”

Dr. Kandel told the Nature editors that it would be very important for these projects to “begin with tractable goals.” A three-time recipient of NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grants and member of the Scientific Council of the Brain and Behavior Foundation, Dr. Kandel also warned that the new initiatives would only be able to fulfill their immense promise if they were backed by sustained public investment.

Learn more about The BRAIN Initiative in this article from The Quarterly, Summer 2013.

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