By 2020, brain diseases will account for 20 percent of the global burden of disease, according to the World Health Organization. Military service members are particularly susceptible to PTSD as a reaction to the traumas of war. PTSD is a condition in which individuals feel anxiety and panic when reminded of a traumatic event. About 2.7 million Americans served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and at least 20 per cent of them have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It also continues to occur at high rates among civilians because of high incidents of trauma such as an assault, traffic accident, or natural disaster.
Existing drugs for brain disorders are often ineffective and frequently produce troublesome side effects. One reason is that drugs alter the chemistry of the entire brain, not just the area of interest, modulating the behavior of otherwise healthy neurons, writes Adam Piore in MIT technology review. Countries have launched multibillion dollar brain initiative programs goals of improving diagnosis and prevention of brain diseases.
The National Institutes of Health has announced funding for 110 new awards totaling $169 million for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, bringing the total 2017 funding investment for the program to $260 million. Maps of whole brains in action, the ability to identify thousands of brain cells at a time, and innovative brain scanners are just a few of the advances funded by the groundbreaking effort.
“Understanding the way the brain processes information and how it lays down memories and retrieves them will be instrumental for understanding brain health, and ultimately, preventing brain disease,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “These awards add to work already underway to give us a high-resolution picture of the circuits and networks in the brain, how they work, and where they can go wrong.”
The EU’s Human Brain Project (HBP) is a large ten-year scientific research project that aims to build a collaborative ICT-based scientific research infrastructure to allow researchers across Europe to advance knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, computing, and brain-related medicine. The Project, which started on 1 October 2013, is a European Commission Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship. The HBP is coordinated by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and is largely funded by the European Union. The project is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
China Brain Project, a multibillion-yuan initiative expected to kick off this year, with the aim of supporting brain research. The China Brain Project is a 15-year project, approved by the Chinese National People’s Congress in March 2016, targeted at research into the neural basis of cognitive function, with additional goals of improving diagnosis and prevention of brain diseases, and driving information technology and artificial intelligence projects that are inspired by the brain. The project follows similar initiatives launched by the EU and the U.S., both with similarly hefty price tags and the same goal: to decode the human brain and use the knowledge to tackle brain diseases and advance artificial intelligence.
Technologies generated by the HBP and other similar projects offer several possibilities to other fields of research. For instance, a brain model can be used to investigate signatures of disease in the brain and the impact of certain drugs, enabling the development of better diagnosis and treatment methods. Ultimately, these technologies will likely lead to more advanced medical options available to patients at a lower cost.
NIH BRAIN Initiative builds on early advances
Launched in 2013, the BRAIN Initiative is a large-scale effort to push the boundaries of neuroscience research and equip scientists with insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. Awarded to more than 178 investigators working at 56 institutions representing fields as diverse as engineering and psychology, this year’s funding will expand NIH’s efforts to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action. While some have worked directly on the human brain others have tested tools and developed animal and computational models that help a wide range of researchers study the brain.
In the past three years, research under the initiative has advanced so rapidly that this year many of the previously funded individual projects will receive expanded support to achieve the ambitious goals of the BRAIN Initiative.
“Thanks to the rapid advances in neuroscience research, the BRAIN Initiative is entering a new phase, as we fully fund groundbreaking projects that were exploratory just a few years ago,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “The imaginative science performed in individual laboratories remains the backbone of BRAIN, but the neuroscience community now has the unique opportunity to take on groundbreaking projects that can only be completed by teams of scientists working together.”
Brain Initiative Challenges
How do we think? What happens when a part of our brain stops working? Several projects have successfully taken the first steps to understanding the human brain, the greatest challenge and the highest goal of the BRAIN Initiative.
Henry Markram professor of Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, in a 2009 TED talk, first presented to the general public his vision of mathematically simulating the brain’s 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses on a supercomputer. “We can do it within 10 years,” he promised the audience, suggesting that such a mathematical model might even be capable of consciousness.
After those 10 years, Markram told the audience, “we will send … a hologram to talk to you.” In various talks, interviews and articles, he suggested that a mathematical brain model would deliver such fundamental breakthroughs as simulation-driven drug discovery, the replacement of certain kinds of animal experiments and a better understanding of disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
As if that were not enough, the simulated brain would also spin off technology for building new and faster computers and create robots with cognitive skills and possibly intelligence.
Current brain imaging technology can show the functions of almost 200 areas of the human brain, but scientists still can’t map how neurons — a type of cell in the brain that transmits information — interact with one another. This piece of the puzzle is essential for helping scientists understand mental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder and depression, according to U.S.-based neuroscientist Josh Huang.
In addition, detailed brain simulation requires significant computing power, leading to developments in supercomputing and energy-efficient, brain-inspired computing techniques. Computational developments can be extended into areas such as data mining, telecommunications, appliances, and other industrial uses.
Resources needed to create a real-time human brain scale simulation shows we need about 1 to 10 exaflop/s with 4 petabytes of memory. One of the objectives of the Human Brain Project plan is to develop hardware architectures and software systems for visually interactive, multi-scale supercomputing moving towards the exascale.
The long-term ethical consequences of the Project are also considered. The Project follows a policy of Responsible Research and Innovation, and its Ethics Advisory Board is responsible for monitoring the use of human volunteers, animal subjects, and the data collected. Implications on European society, industry, and economy are investigated by the HBP Ethics and Society Programme’s Foresight Lab.
Current brain scanners are large, uncomfortable, loud, and require people to remain still for a long time, making it difficult to accurately study the brain. To address these difficulties, one BRAIN Initiative group laid the foundation for developing a portable MRI machine designed to scan the brain. For their pilot project the team made a prototype scanner that could simultaneously send and receive electromagnetic signals which will help make it much smaller than current machines. Initial results showed the scanner could take pictures peoples’ brains. In the future, this group will work on making the scanner lighter and mobile.
Meanwhile, other projects will continue to focus on developing first-of-a-kind imaging tools that would take more detailed pictures of the human brain. One group is developing a novel method for using magnetic particles to study brain activity with much higher sensitivity than MRI while the other is aiming to dramatically improve MRI methods to allow for faster imaging times and more accurate pictures of the human brain, writes NIH
China is building largest high-resolution brain mapping center in the world
China is building largest high-resolution brain mapping center in the world, the HUST-Suzhou Institute for Brainsmatics, where automated brain imaging machines are working around the clock to produce high-resolution 3-D models of mouse brains. “The institute’s systems have reached the highest-resolution level for brain-wide imaging,” said Huang, who works at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, a leading nonprofit research institute that has partnered with the Suzhou-based lab.
The researchers start by giving the mouse a chemical injection or electric shock to provoke a certain brain response like fear or excitement, so they can later track which neurons are associated with that emotion. They then take the tiny 0.5-cubic-centimeter brain out of the mouse and place it in one of the lab’s machines, explained Jiang Tao, the director of the institute’s brain imaging department. The organ is dissected into more than 15,000 miniscule slices, photographs of which are sent to a computer. Once all the slices are pieced together, a 3-D model of the mouse brain — in its final emotional state before death — is born.
“We are confident that our technology will have significant impact in future studies,” Luo Qingming, the facility’s lead researcher, told Sixth Tone. “There will definitely be a huge demand for brain mapping that can show both detail and the overall picture,” added Luo, who has been working on the technology used at the lab since 2002.
For now, the scientists are only working with mice. They’ll move on to monkey brains, Luo said, before finally tackling to their most ambitious goal: starting high-resolution human brain mapping within five years.
But mapping a human brain — which is around 3,000 times larger than a mouse brain — is another thing altogether, said Li An’an, the institute’s deputy director who played a key role in development of the core technology. For one, the scientists won’t be able to work with live human brains; they’ll have to use brains from people who donated their bodies to scientific research, said Jiang. Another challenge will be managing the massive amount of data. If the researchers succeed, Luo hopes the technology they develop could result in a standardized platform to make brain imaging more consistent and efficient in China