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Modern Day Myth-busting: What is the BRAIN Initiative?

By: Emily Myers

Almost everyone knows somebody who has had a relative affected by some brain disease or injury. Thanksgiving Day of 2012, my otherwise healthy grandmother collapsed unexpectedly. We called an ambulance, thinking that she might be having a heart attack. Most of my family drove over to the hospital in Greenville, South Carolina and anxiously sat in a waiting room while my grandmother was transported from the ambulance into the hospital so that the doctors could discover what was wrong with her. After a matter of minutes, a doctor came into the room wearing a grave expression. He squatted down on the floor in the middle of my family, and told us he was sorry to be delivering this news on Thanksgiving Day, but that my grandmother was suffering a massive brain bleed deep in the ventricles of her brain, and that a neurosurgeon was going to give her a shunt that would hopefully remove the blood and relieve the pressure from her brain. Because of the location of the bleed, the doctors were unable to surgically stop the bleeding. All we could do was hope that the bleeding would end on its own.

My grandmother was in a coma for two more days, and during both of those days, we were told that she still had brain activity and that there was a chance, even if only a slim one, that she might awake from her coma. Her brain was damaged from the bleeding. We could not possibly know how severe the damage was until after she woke up- which could take weeks. However, she stopped responding to external stimuli on the third day. Her brain activity decreased dramatically and she relied entirely on life support. The doctors told us my grandmother would have little hope of reawakening. After deciding to remove her from life support, she passed away later that day. If we knew more about the brain, the necessary surgical procedures that could have saved my grandmother’s life may have existed.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and science communicator, said of the human brain, “Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.” Our brains are such a large component of our everyday lives. The complexity of the connections and inner workings of our minds provide us with something uniquely human, something we have a greater degree of than any other animal — consciousness. However, many mysteries concerning the brain still remain unsolved. In April 2013, President Barack Obama unveiled a new research project to map the brain, dubbed the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or BRAIN) Initiative, which hopes to solve some of the myths and mysteries of the brain.

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President Obama devoted $100 million to this project so that scientists from multiple organizations could come together and accomplish the goals of the Initiative. Key players in researching for the BRAIN Initiative include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). These groups will come together to do such things as understand the dynamic functions of the brain, develop new tools to study the brain and to do research in the physical, biological, social and behavioral sciences. Additionally, some private partners (namely, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences) were allocated money to do further research in areas such as perception, decision making, action, new imaging techniques, the storage of information in neural networks, provide knowledge about diseases and conditions of the brain and study the genes and neuronal circuits of the brain.

The BRAIN Initiative has many goals that range from creating a “real-time” map of the brain to increasing our understanding of the many diseases and conditions of the brain. One of those goals is to better understand Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and other brain diseases through further study of the mechanisms that underlie them in hopes of finding ways to cure, treat and even prevent these conditions. Reducing language barriers by studying ways in which a computer can connect with our brains is another goal of the BRAIN Initiative. Through understanding the anatomy and physiology of the various structures of the brain, researchers hope to be able treat, and perhaps reverse, the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other traumatic brain injuries in veterans. The researchers also hope that this project will allow us to view the activity of many neurons at one time instead of only viewing the activity of one or two. The BRAIN Initiative not only aims to map the brain, but also to provide the tools necessary for the creation of an overarching theory on brain function.

Such a project could prove to be an amazing advance towards understanding the brain. However, the BRAIN Initiative faces many challenges. Firstly, the brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons, which makes mapping all of them simultaneously virtually impossible. Furthermore, the connections in the brain change over time as we experience new things. As such, no two brains are the same and no one person’s brain is the same at two different points in time. Another complication is that the different structures in the brain do not function independently from each other. Since the brain is such a dynamic entity, scientists have yet to create a single theory that explains memories and thoughts emerge from the activity of the brain.

Overcoming these obstacles and achieving the goals set by the White House and by the research organizations involved in the project could be prove to be one of the greatest advancements in human history. In the words of John Wingfield, NSF’s assistant director for the Biological Sciences Directorate, “When scientists do ultimately figure out how the brain works–however long it takes, this accomplishment will probably be considered the greatest scientific achievement in all of human history.” Imagine a world in which there is no Alzheimer’s or autism or Parkinson’s. Imagine being able to view a “real-time” map of the connections in your brain. Man has long been driven by the desire to learn and understand and bust the myths of the world surrounding us and by the desire to answer the question behind one of the greatest myths of all, “Who are we?”. Furthermore, such a project will bring us closer to helping patients who suffer brain diseases and injuries so that they and their families will not have to endure the hardships associated with enduring such a trial.