Charting the frontier of the human brain

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Space, the final frontier? Not really. Even though we supposedly use it every day scientists actually know very little about how the human brain functions.

With hopes that better understanding of the brain could lead to effective treatments or cures for conditions like Alzheimer’s, chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, President Obama has launched the very literally-named BRAIN Initiative – Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

The ability to connect the dots between how neurons interact and complicated results like self-awareness, movement and emotion really comes down to tools, said Dr. Cori Bargmann at a White House conference Tuesday afternoon. Scientists can currently look at one or even thousands of neurons, but they need to be able to look at millions, she said.

“The tools we have need to be 100 times better than they are now,” she said during the livesteamed conference.

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“The BRAIN Initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative tenchnologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function,” says the project’s website.

It’s a collaboration between the private and public sector, including DARPA and IARPA, both intelligence and defense agencies. Also on board are the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration and the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Geoffrey Manley, trauma neurosurgeon at San Francisco General Hospital, said the initiative comes at a time when information about traumatic brain injury, the “signature” injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that has been noted among returning veterans as well as athletes, is just starting to become sophisticated.

“Traumatic brain injury is one of the most complex injuries in one of the most complex organs in the body,” he said during the conference. “It’s no wonder this is a very challenging problem.”

For more information on the BRAIN Initiative, check out the project’s official website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/share/brain-initiative

 

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Bethania Palma Markus is famous for one thing: having a really, really long name. If you can pronounce it, you are a superior pronouncer of words. She's also a long-time journalist and freelance writer for a variety of news outlets. Follow her on Twitter if you like Twitter @BPalmaMarkus

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