The advisory committee for the BRAIN initiative includes a Morehouse neurobiologist and the first African American to achieve a coveted trifecta of academic honors.
Peter MacLeish completed his doctorate in neurobiology in 1977, the same year that Raymond Damadian, Larry Minkoff, and Michael Goldsmith performed the first MRI of a human being. Since then, MRI has evolved into one of the powerhouse tools of brain science, and MacLeish has emerged as one of the nation’s preeminent neuroscientists. So it’s fitting that advances in techniques like MRI have motivated the NIH and its partners to dedicate $1 billion to a new push to decode the inner workings of the brain, and that MacLeish will help them decide how to spend it.
MacLeish, director of the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Institute, is one of 19 members of the BRAIN working group, assembled to craft a vision for the NIH-led BRAIN initiative that was announced by president Obama in 2013. (BRAIN stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.) The group is a who’s who of the US neuroscience community; it includes a Nobel Laureate and more than a dozen members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. MacLeish brings to the team a career of expertise in visual signal processing—his work has helped shed light on how retinal cells in our eye convert light into electrical pulses that can be interpreted by the brain.
As the working group puts it, their charge was to “catalyze an interdisciplinary effort of unprecedented scope” that will help scientists construct a dynamic picture of brain function. To that end, the group embarked on a national tour of sorts: Over a span of 14 months, they held workshops, consulted scientists and nonscientists, and solicited ideas online in order to come up with a 10-year roadmap for BRAIN initiative research. They presented that roadmap to the NIH last June in the form of a 146-page report. But if you don’t have time to read the lengthy document, you’re in luck: The group has now published a condensed version as a journal article, to appear in the May issue of Philosophical Transactions B.
Comprehensive yet concise, the paper is worthwhile reading. A recurring theme is that the brain is essentially a complex collection of circuits—a superfast computer with 100,000 gigabytes of RAM. But unlike computers, we don’t yet understand how the brain’s basic components—neurons—are connected, much less how they are “programmed.” In fact, we can’t even say for sure how many types of neurons there are and what functions they all have. But as the working group sees it, we’ve now acquired many of the tools we need to figure those things out.
Of the overarching questions that the group expects to guide the coming decade of brain research, one is particularly intriguing: Throughout the course of the BRAIN initiative, massive amounts of data will be collected by hundreds of different groups; how will we make sense of it all? How will we distill all those ones and zeroes into insights about how the brain’s 80 billion neurons work together to encode thoughts, actions, and emotions—the things that make us “us”?
That’s a tall order, but not an impossible one. In fact, probably no generation has been better prepared to crack the brain’s code than the current one. We live, after all, in the era of big data. As the working group notes, scientists are already developing many of the requisite statistical and computational techniques. The key, they say, will be making sure that those techniques are made widely available.
One person who’s bound to play an important part in that effort is working group member and MIT neuroscientist Emery Brown. Brown is among the small, elite club of scientists who have earned the National Academy “trifecta” (membership in the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine), and he’s the first African American to do so. One of his areas of expertise is the development of statistical strategies to decode neuronal firing patterns. Not only will he help craft the vision for the BRAIN initiative, he’ll also help execute it: He and collaborators at MIT were recent recipients of a BRAIN initiative grant to study how information flows through the brains of mice as they make decisions based on perception and short-term memory.