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BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project: Aiming to understand how the brain works

Less than four months ago, Stanford neurologist William Newsome, PhD, received a phone call that could alter the next decade of his professional career. Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, called to tell Newsome that President Barack Obama wanted him to co-chair a ten-year project designed to advance our understanding of the brain and the technologies used to investigate it.

The project is called the BRAIN Initiative, and Newsome and co-chair Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann, PhD, of The Rockefeller University, have an ambitious research plan for the next ten years. Yesterday in Nature, Alison Abbott explained how the BRAIN Initiative and the European Commission's Human Brain Project are similar, and how the aims of these projects span three major areas of neuroscience: measuring the brain, mapping it, and understanding how it works. She wrote:

Although the aims of the two projects differ, both are, in effect, bold bids for the neuroscientist's ultimate challenge: to work out exactly how the billions of neurons and trillions of connections, or synapses, in the human brain organize themselves into working neural circuits that allow us to fall in love, go to war, solve mathematical theorems or write poetry. What's more, researchers want to understand the ways in which brain circuitry changes — through the constant growth and retreat of synapses — as life rolls by.

Reaching this goal will require innovative new technologies, ranging from nanotechnologies to genetics to optics, that can capture the electrical activity coursing through neurons, prod those neurons to find out what they do, map the underlying anatomical circuits in fine detail and process the exabytes of information all this work will spit out. “Think about it,” says neuroscientist Konrad Kording of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. “The human brain produces in 30 seconds as much data as the Hubble Space Telescope has produced in its lifetime.”

The goals of these projects are daunting. But to Newsome, as Abbot explains, the ultimate objective isn't to unlock every mystery of the brain within ten years - it's to navigate research so that someday we can.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiativesCo-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience instituteExperts weigh in on the new BRAIN Initiative and A federal push to further brain research

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