Big-science programs are costly, and the road to transformative technology is riddled with unexpected twists and turns. But the potential is enormous, and there are economic benefits along the way. Think 1960s moon shot and Human Genome Project. The latter, completed in 2003, helped launch today’s multi-billion-dollar, global DNA sequencing industry.
The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), like those earlier research programs, is an audacious undertaking with a potentially huge payoff. Launched by President Barack Obama in 2013, the initiative is designed to advance the science, tools, and technologies needed to map and decipher brain activity. Cal-BRAIN (California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience), created in 2014, is the first statewide effort to complement the federal program.
Big-brain science is a good fit for UC San Diego, where neuroscience, biology, cognitive science, and nanoengineering are core institutional strengths. The university’s Center for Brain Activity Mapping (CBAM), established in 2013 as the nation’s first academic center dedicated to the brain mapping effort, aims to develop a new generation of tools for obtaining a full picture of the brain’s signaling activities.
Charting brain functions in unprecedented detail could lead to new prevention strategies and therapies for disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. The marriage of nanoscience and neuroscience for mapping the human brain’s trillions of connections in real time will spawn neurotechnology as a new academic discipline and a new industry cluster.
Ralph Greenspan, director of CBAM and associate director of UC San Diego’s Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, was among the original authors of the white paper that sparked the federal BRAIN Initiative. He also coauthored a proposal to the University of California Office of the President and the state legislature that served as a blueprint for Cal-BRAIN.
Computational modeling of cells and networks is an essential part of neuroscience research, and investigators are using models to address problems of ever increasing complexity. To facilitate access to high-performance computing resources, the National Science Foundation is funding a collaborative effort by the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego and the Yale School of Medicine to develop a Neuroscience Gateway. The web-based portal, nsgportal.org, will provide users with free supercomputer time for research and instruction, a streamlined process for uploading models, and a community forum for collaborating and sharing data. Computational modeling enables students and researchers at institutions with limited resources for wet lab or experimental infrastructure to participate in leading-edge science.
Three federal agencies—the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF)— are providing research funding for the BRAIN Initiative. Private-sector supporters include the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Kavli Foundation—both longtime UC San Diego partners. To spur innovation among interdisciplinary teams of neuroscientists, physical scientists, medical professionals, and engineers, UC San Diego’s Center for Brain Activity Mapping (CBAM) awarded twenty-two seed grants in 2013–14.
In 2014, four teams of UC San Diego scientists won NIH research grants totaling nearly $10 million over a three-year period to lay the groundwork for visualizing brain circuits and how they work. Four other teams received NSF Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER), totaling more than $1 million.
New tools and technologies could help social scientists address big-picture questions about human behavior and seek solutions to societal problems, including brain disease.
A team of UC San Diego cognitive scientists, along with engineers at the University of Queensland Australia and the Jacobs School of Engineering, received an EAGER award to develop tools for understanding neural activity in a social context.