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President Obama Taps San Diego Neuroscientists for Brain Mapping Initiative

Researchers can currently observe small groups of neurons firing in real-time. But they're hoping to get bigger pictures by developing better brain imaging technology through the BRAIN initiative.
Salk Institute
Researchers can currently observe small groups of neurons firing in real-time. But they're hoping to get bigger pictures by developing better brain imaging technology through the BRAIN initiative.
Obama Salk neuroscientists
Salk Institute One Of Private Sector Partners Helping Fund BRAIN
GUEST:Terry Sejnowski, Neuroscientist, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, April 3rd. Our top story on Midday Edition, in announce think the new 10-year research effort called the brain initiative, president Barack Obama said the knowledge unlocked in the effort will be transformative. One of the San Diego scientists take part in this transformative research is Terry Sejnowski. He was alongside President Obama when he made the announcement yesterday. He is Francis Crick chair and head of the neurobiology laboratory at Salk institute for neurobiological studies. Welcome to the program. SEJNOWSKI: A pleasure to be here. CAVANAUGH: What is different to this initiative to what we've been hearing about for a lot of years, trying to study the way the brain works? SEJNOWSKI: Well, first of all, the brain is the most complex device in the known universe. So it's been really difficult to penetrate and understand basic principles. What's changed now is that we have a new technology, which is based on nanoscience, which allows us to miniaturize probes and allows us to answer some of these deep questions. CAVANAUGH: Is this also an example of pure scientific research? In the past I've heard of studies that have been aimed to find out one thing or another, how the brain function relates to a certain disease or certain condition. This is basically -- to do this work and to figure out how to use it later, right? SEJNOWSKI: That's exactly right. We're trying to develop a new neurotechnology which will allow us not just to probe into the brain but also to influence it by scaling up from just a few hundred neurons today to perhaps several million neurons ten years from now. We'll be in a position to not just understand basic principles but also to go in and help patients with mental disorders that are right now debilitating. CAVANAUGH: Now, I know that you're very excited about this. Testimony us a little bit about what yesterday was like at this meeting with President Obama. &%F0 SEJNOWSKI: Well, this was an extraordinary event. There were 240 scientists and government officials in the east room. And we were I think waiting for this to happen because of the fact that there are so many agencies involved. It's DARPA and the heads of all these agencies were this, Francis Collins from NIH, the head of the DARPA projects, so this was really an extraordinary bringing together of the brain power for all of the different parts of the government and the scientific community. And what I really was impressed with was Obama's being able to present it not just as a single project but rather as a way of thinking about the future. That we have to incentivize innovation. We need to bring our best minds together to solve these difficult problems, and this is just one of the grand challenges that he's going to be announcing. CAVANAUGH: He did compare this, and it has been compared to the human genome project. That was the successful effort to map the genetic building blocks of human beings. How does this compare? SEJNOWSKI: Well, this is an even more ambitious project because there are a lot more neurons in the brain than there are base pairs in the genome. There's about a few billion base pairs, but there's 100 billion neurons. So what we really need to do is develop tools, ways to go in and to understand how populations of neurons interacting with each other are, for example, able to allow you to see or think. CAVANAUGH: So what we've done so far with the brain is figure out which parts of the brain control some functions that we have. But we don't exactly know how it does; is that right? SEJNOWSKI: That's quite right. We know a lot about a little. In other words we have a tremendous knowledge of the molecular organization of the brain, but what we don't understand is how do all the parts interact with each other? It's not a single neuron that controls our actions. Neurons communicate with each other over a large distance between many different brain areas, and right now, it's a mystery of exactly how that's organized. But I think we for the first time in history have the actual ability with these new tools coming online to actually get answers to these questions. CAVANAUGH: You have mentioned a number of times the new tools that we have. One is computational neuroscience, a field that you established that will be a central part of this project. Will you explain to us what that is? &%F0 SEJNOWSKI: Yes, well, computational approaches, basically is about information. How is information represented in neurons, new is it transformed? What are the interactions between neurons? At the Salk institute, we have dynamic brain initiative which is going to be using these tools to understand how they allow us to see objects and coordinate actions. One way of thinking about it is that we can collect all the data, and that is going to grow enormously with this project, but then you have a challenge. How do you analyze it? How do you visualize it? How do you put it into the form of a mathematical model that allows you to understand the basic principles? And that's what my lab and other groups at UCSD are working toward. CAVANAUGH: Now, how will this data actually be collected? Will people be hooked up to machines and they'll observe how the brain functions in that way? SEJNOWSKI: Well, this is already happening. There are projects that have been funded by NIH and DARPA to record from the motor cortex of paraplegics and quadriplegics. Recording from the neurons, right now, it's just about 100, a small number, but there's enough information in those neurons to be able to control a robot arm that has allowed someone who is completely incapable of moving their arms to raise a coffee cup and drink coffee. So this is just the beginning. And I think that by scaling this up to millions of neurons we're going to be able to have an even greater capacity to map what's happening in the brain into the real world. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A large part of this is to help people who are suffering from diseases, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia. Do you see the information that you'll get out of mapping the brain helping in treating these illnesses? SEJNOWSKI: Well, are that's our ultimate goal. NIH, their mission is to try to understand enough about the brain so we can go in and help alleviate some of these very debilitating disorders like depression and Alzheimer's. The first step is though to understand the basic principle which is the step we're taking. The second step is to influence those neurons. We have evidence that one of the things with -- if that balance isn't maintained, then the brain is no longer able to function properly. But if we can go in and influence that balance, then we might be able to help some of these individuals recover their basic ability to think clearly and to become normal people. CAVANAUGH: Now, President Obama has proposed $100 million in next year a building as the initial investment in the brain research project. Salk institute is also investing $28 million. Why are private institutions like Salk investing along with the government in this? SEJNOWSKI: Well, this is I think a really important sign that the time is right. It's like when daffodils come up in the spring, they come up all over the place. The Howard Hughes medical institute has already an ongoing program and has already invested $50 million a year into understanding the basic ability of neurocircuits to create behavior. The Allen institute for brain science has made a similar investment, $300 million. Salk institute has developed this initiative, which is a dynamic brain, dollar is very much in parallel with the government approach, and we have the -- both the neuroscientists, the computational approach that will be making an important contribution. And now UCSD actually is the -- I think the partner that's going to really bring to the table the engineering. We have to partner with the engineers otherwise it's not going to be able to multiply the efforts that we have. And so we have a really strong group at UCSD, the institute for brain and mind actually was catalytic in creating the government program. We also have the institute for neurocomputation. We have the nanoscience department. So this is really -- these are the key players that we need to bring together. We need to coordinate that. And this is actually happening as we speak. CAVANAUGH: This sounds like such an enormous project. Who is going to be taking all of the information coming from all of these different places, different research project, and trying to make some sense out of it? SEJNOWSKI: I was asked to serve by Francis Collins, director of NIH, on a special committee to advise the NIH on how to coordinate all of the data that's going to be pouring in. And this is an extraordinary group of individual, all of whom are completely willing -- it's so important that we've gotten the best minds working on this problem. But ultimately we have to find a way for engineers and biologists and neurologists to come together at the timetable and work together very closely. And that requires social engineering as well as scientific engineering. CAVANAUGH: You use the term mind, and for a long time, the whole idea of, well, a brain is a physical object but where does the mind come in, where does the person making that decision come in? Do you think that this project will begin to answer some of those age-old questions? SEJNOWSKI: Just think about this. Ten years from now, we created this instrument, we can look into the brain and we can see all the neurons, as they very rapidly respond to the world, as they rapidly reorganize themselves, and I think as we begin to gather theidate Aas we begin to analyze it, we're going to be able to see into literally how it is that the brain organizes thoughts and actions, how is it that we make decisions? We've never had this opportunity before, and we don't know what we're going to find. That's the exciting part about it. I think it's going to be so exciting. Like the first time gal Leo looked out of his telescope and saw the moons around Jupiter. We're going to see the moons around the mind. CAVANAUGH: San Diego is really excited about this, are not only for the advancement in science but the fact that this is going to generate a lot of jobs in this region. SEJNOWSKI: We anticipate that this will have an impact similar to the impact that the previous major projects like the human genome project had, catalyzing the biotech industry, for example. We think there's going to be a whole new industry formed around the neurotech sector, and we're going to be partnering with Qualcomm and other companies to make this happen. We think that there is really a lot of industrial advances that will come out of this. Once you understand the principles of every function, you can build devices that perform like the brain. So really this is going to have so many applications. I think it's going to really be a renaissance in terms of the economy of the region. CAVANAUGH: So besides the actual jobs that are -- the actual jobs that are going to be created by people working on this project itself. You see offshoots as data comes out, as scientific advances are made from this brain project. You see little starter companies doing things with that information and generating more jobs. SEJNOWSKI: Yes, and it's already happening. There's a company called neurovigil, which is analyzing data from the scalp and is able to look at the brain rhythms that appear during sleep. And this is going to tell us ahead of time if that there is perhaps a brain disorder like depression or Alzheimer's that is coming out early. So this is just a harbinger of things to come. CAVANAUGH: I don't have to ask you if you're excited about this. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Everything that you've said makes it very clear that you are. When will you actually begin work on this project? SEJNOWSKI: The work has already begun. And in fact, my own lab, we have engineers and physicists working directly with biologists and neuroscientists and opening up the brain both on the molecular side and also from the computational side. And what we've learned is that it's absolutely essential to have a central place where they come together and they talk. Because we live in different worlds. Different departments, different silos. And in order to make progress on the brain, we're going to have to break those silos down, we're going to have to find a way to really come together and work together. And this is really the challenge. CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for coming in, and thank you for sharing your enthusiasm about this project with us. SEJNOWSKI: Thank you very much.

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President Obama Taps San Diego Neuroscientists for Brain Mapping Initiative
Scientists still don't fully understand what's going on inside the human brain. But thanks to a robust White House initiative, local researchers could help get us closer to answering that basic question.

But, as President Barack Obama noted Tuesday, scientists still don't fully know the answer to one age-old question: What exactly is going on inside the human brain?


"The BRAIN initiative will change that," he said, announcing a 10-year research effort that will enlist the country's top neuroscientists to map activity in the human brain.

The Obama administration wants to do that "by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action, and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember."

Calling this one of the 21st Century's "grand challenges," the President compared the BRAIN initiative to the Human Genome Project and the Apollo moon missions.

He said the project could lead to more effective treatments for brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and autism, better prosthetic limbs and computers that read our thoughts.

Aside from these borderline science-fiction applications, the BRAIN initiative stands to create lots of new jobs. Obama said this effort will help counteract cuts triggered by sequestration, which he fears could “hold back a generation of young scientists.”


San Diego's Salk Institute is one of the private sector partners helping to fund BRAIN, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

Salk is chipping in $28 million to kickstart the initiative. Neuroscience is still a relatively young field, but Salk professor Terry Sejnowski says now is the perfect time to launch a project of this scale.

"The technology is much better," he said. "There are resources we didn't have before."

Sejnowski attended the White House announcement along with UC San Diego's Ralph Greenspan, another key BRAIN initiative architect.

Corrected: June 16, 2024 at 6:30 PM PDT
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment