More than 150 neuroscientists descended on Arlington, Virginia this week to begin planning the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative—an ambitious but still hazy proposal to understand how the brain works by recording activity from an unprecedented numbers of neurons at once.
President Barack Obama announced the initiative on 2 April, which will be carried out by three federal agencies—the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—alongside a handful of private foundations. Most neuroscientists have relished the attention on their field, but have also been left wondering what it means in scientific terms to “understand” the brain, what it will take to get there, and how much will be feasible in the programme’s projected 10-year lifespan. They gathered at an inaugural NSF planning meeting taking place from 5-6 May to discuss their ideas and concerns.
“The belief is we’re ready for a leap forward,” says Van Wedeen, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and one of the NSF meeting organizers. “Which leap and in which direction is still being debated.”
The NSF group invited researchers representing neuroscience, computer science, and engineering — as many as would fit in the hotel conference room. Another estimated 200 or so followed the meeting by live webcast on Monday. Roughly 75 participants accepted NSF’s open invitation to submit one-page documents outlining the major obstacles currently impeding neuroscience research.
Many researchers stressed the importance of developing more sophisticated theoretical models of the brain. “We want to know the principles of neuronal function, not just recording of their activity,” says Huda Zoghbi, a molecular neurobiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
Others warned of the need to plan for a data deluge. “We’re spectacularly underprepared to capture the data that are going to be generated,” says Randal Burns, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Existing brain imaging techniques can generate 1 terabyte of data per day, and proposed technologies may be poised to far exceed that rate, he says.
One day earlier, the same hotel hosted the first face-to-face meeting of the NIH ‘Dream Team’ — a panel of 15 neuroscience researchers appointed by NIH director Francis Collins to lead the agency’s efforts on the BRAIN Initiative. The first NIH meeting and its agenda was closed to outside scientists and the public. “We’re just trying to get ourselves organized,” explains Bill Newsome, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California, and co-chair of the NIH group, who stayed to attend the NSF meeting as well. He says that the NIH group will begin collecting public input in the coming weeks via a new website.