Yale neuroscientists prepared to help build “BRAIN”

Yale researchers are poised to contribute to the national decade-long effort to map the human brain.

On Tuesday morning, Obama unveiled the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, project that aims to reach a deeper understanding of neurological diseases ranging from Parkinson’s to epilepsy. While calls for grant proposals will not come for months, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine — the University’s neuroscience research hub — said the school has a history of inter-department collaboration, partnerships that would help meet the initiative’s goal of developing a new brain imaging technique that can monitor the activity of billions of neurons. BRAIN will receive approximately $100 million in Obama’s 2014 fiscal year budget, expected to be unveiled next week.

“Exactly how this will play out, I think it’s too early to say,” neurology professor Stephen Strittmatter said. “But Yale is exactly the kind of fertile ground for this program and for new approaches for understanding the brain to develop.”

Strittmatter said inquiry in the BRAIN initiative will have to integrate insights from multiple disciplines. The Medical School’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program is an asset for Yale in the research endeavor because of its collaborative approach to neuroscience research, he said. The University’s neuroscience research has a long-standing tradition of analyzing the whole brain in addition to individual neurons and circuits, said neuroscience professor Pasko Rakic, director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale.

The original idea behind the BRAIN project came from a 2011 meeting of the Kavli Foundation, which supports science research in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics, said neurobiology professor David McCormick, vice director of the Kavli Institute at Yale. Yale is one of four Kavli Institute hubs worldwide focusing on neuroscience, he added. The Kavil Foundation has pledged roughly $40 million for the BRAIN project over the next decade.

“We have a direct line to the Kavli foundation,” McCormick said. “They come and visit us twice a year or once a year, and we meet with them and talk with them, so we have a bit of an advantage in that we have a dialogue going on with them directly. That doesn’t mean they are going to give us money for sure. That just means we have a little bit of an advantage over someone not in that situation.”

At the 2011 meeting of the Kavli Foundation, a handful of neuroscientists and nanoscientists envisioned developing new technology to measure brain activity at a much higher resolution than previously possible. If the federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health end up seeking this nanoscience-based approach, Yale may be at a disadvantage — McCormick said he does not think Yale has nanoscientists specializing in neuroscience research and therefore other institutions may have a “leg up” when competing for certain grants.

While Yale may contribute significant intellectual capital to the project, the amount of funding Yale could receive is relatively small in the scope of the University’s research endeavors — National Science Foundation and NIH grants to the University totaled approximately $491 million in the year ending June 30, 2012. Neurology professor Hal Blumenfeld said while he applauds the BRAIN program, he hopes the project receives more funding than currently anticipated.

“The whole one year of $100 million dollars of funding is less than what our country spends on one F-35 fighter plane,” he said. “I hope that Congress and private donors will recognize the importance of this and bolster the effort.”

A finalized report of the BRAIN initiative’s goals will be released in June 2014.

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