BRAIN explained

Find out how the ambitious Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project announced by US President Barack Obama will help advance our understanding of the human brain.

Image: Allen Institute for Brain Science

Rafael Yuste is co-director of the the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University. He helped launch the BRAIN project. Here he explains how the project will enable scientists to map and understand the human brain.

professor rafael yuste holding up a laserImage: Rafael Yuste

Why is brain mapping important? 
‘Brain activity generates our mind. There is no “magic” inside our skull, just brain cells firing in patterns. Understanding how these patterns lead to our mental abilities is one of mankind’s greatest scientific challenges.’ 

What do you hope to achieve? 
‘The goal is to construct a map of the activity of complete brain circuits of experimental animals and eventually of the human brain. This information will be used to develop, test and verify theories of how the brain works.

‘This is necessary to understand and influence how the brain produces perception, action, memories, thoughts, and consciousness. This information will also reveal how brain activity is affected in mental and neurological diseases.’

world's first brain activity map of zebrafish brain This is the world’s first whole-brain activity map. The orange regions indicate active cells in a zebra fish brain as it reacts to a laser shone into its eyes. Image: Misha Ahrens and Philipp Keller

How will you do this? 
‘First, we need to build revolutionary tools that can record the activity of each and every cell in a brain circuit made of millions of neurons. We also need tools that can influence the activity of each neuron in the circuit. Finally, we need to understand the behaviour of these circuits by developing methods to store, manage, analyse and share all the data produced.’ 

Why do we need these new tools and techniques?
‘Perception, cognition and action emerge from hundreds of thousands or millions of brain cells interacting in dense and interconnected, yet widespread, circuits. These occur on a scale between the single cell and the whole brain.

‘Current whole-brain imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are either too slow or too blurred to map activity on this scale. On the other hand, we can only record electrical signals from one or a few neurons at a time. It’s like trying to watch a movie on a screen by looking at a few pixels. No-one has ever “seen” the full screen, because we don’t have techniques to do so yet.’

black and white MRI of a brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners use large, powerful magnets and radio waves to produce images of our insides, like this image of a brain. Image: Flickr/bucaorg

What are the benefits? 
‘The knowledge gained will translate into important medical innovations. It will help doctors understand, diagnose and treat brain disorders as wide-ranging as schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism, depression and paralysis.’ 

‘It will also jump-start artificial intelligence technologies inspired by the brain’s most sophisticated functions, such as understanding language, reasoning and complex problem-solving, as well as launch many novel brain–computer interface technologies.’

Why is this all happening only now? 
‘Mapping something as complex as the brain requires intricate tools and sophisticated data analysis programs. Profound advances in the physical sciences and engineering in recent years are enabling researchers to create these.’  

What are some of these advances? 
‘There are four main areas. The first focuses on using light to detect electrical and chemical activity, and to manipulate brain cells. The second focuses on developing extremely tiny probes that can record and trigger activity in brain cells. 

optogenetics kit with fibreoptic cable attach to stuffed rat skullThis is part of an optogenetics kit. Kits like this are used to direct beams of neuron-activating light down a fibreoptic probe and into the brains of test animals. Source: Thorlabs Ltd 

‘The third is synthetic biology – the ability to create hybrid systems that integrate living brain cells with built-in sensors. These sensors could be electrical, chemical or light sensors. 

'A final thrust is the development of data sharing and analysis methods to enable individual researchers to access these large-scale databases.’  

cyborg nanomesh of silicon wires and lead connection pointsThe ultra-fine mesh at the centre of the green disc supports a network of tiny flexible silicon wires. Charles Lieber from Harvard University grows neurons within meshes like this to create cyborg tissue - a hybrid of wires and living tissue.

When will we see results? 
‘In five years it should be possible to simultaneously monitor and/or manipulate up to tens of thousands of nerve cells. This will allow scientists to decipher the neural basis of some behaviours in experimental animals. 

‘In ten years that number could increase tenfold. By then, research results will have begun to contribute to better treatments for psychiatric disease and devices that can help people move their paralysed limbs.

‘In 15 years scientists should be able to study and stimulate 1 million nerve cells simultaneously in living brains. This could enable scientists to capture the entire brain activity of experimental animals. This could lead to new, transformative technologies in computer, electronic and biomedical industries.’