Neuroscience 2016: The BRAIN Initiative and photonics

With a near doubling of 2016 investment in the BRAIN Initiative, optics and photonics are poised for further success.

Nov 15th, 2016
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About a month after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a near doubling of 2016 investment in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, seven NIH agency directors addressed reporters at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting 2016 (November 12-16; San Diego, CA).

The October announcement heralded more than 100 new awards (to 170+ investigators at 60 institutions), totaling over $70 million, and bringing NIH's 2016 fiscal year investment to >$150 million. In a statement, Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., director of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), said “exciting new advances” have already emerged from the BRAIN Initiative, launched in 2013. Examples of these advances, which provided a structure for the press conference, included:

• 3D printing of functional retinal tissue

• Studies expected to someday enable optogenetics-based treatment in humans

• Breakthrough understanding of schizophrenia with super-resolution microscopy.

Dr. Koroshetz led the presentation, followed by Joshua A. Gordon, MD, PhD of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Nora D. Volkow MD of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), George F. Koob PhD of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Roderic I. Pettigrew PhD, MD of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), David Shurtleff PhD of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), and Michael A. Steinmetz PhD of the Division of Extramural Science Projects (DESP).

While the directors described many innovations not dependent on optics and photonics, or on high-tech at all, the impact of these technologies was clear. And the NIH considers technology key for understanding neural circuit function and brain dynamics.

“The right research”—and training—for neuroscience

As evidenced by articles such as the New York Times’ “There’s such a thing as too much neuroscience," the society has been questioning investment in long-term neuroscience research. Following presentations by seven NIH agency directors in a press conference at Neuroscience 2016 (November 12-16), one journalist asked the leaders to comment on this trend.

Current care of people with psychological disorders is key, answered National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) director Joshua A. Gordon, MD, PhD —and so is investment in “the right research.” He explained that the Institutes are very careful to fund research that is significant for answering important questions.

Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., director of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) agreed, stating, “we know that [brain] circuit abnormalities exist, but we don’t understand them.” He noted that the realization of such understanding “may not be that far away,” and could enable transformative treatments. (The NIH’s October 2016 BRAIN Initiative funding announcement quoted Koroshetz as saying, "There are very few effective cures for neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders,” and that BRAIN Initiative outcomes are important for "providing the insights researchers will need" to develop new therapies.)

Nora D. Volkow MD of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) said that the question of whether we are training too many neuroscientists keeps the directors awake at night. “But,” she said, it is important “to train them in different ways.” She said that neuroscientists trained in bioengineering, modeling, and other such disciplines will be important for the development of innovative and translational products. Which, she said, will have far-reaching impact.

Clearly, optics and photonics are foundational to such impact. And while the Society for Neuroscience (rightly, to my mind) maintains a focus on science (rather than technology), it’s also clear that technology competence among neuroscientists is critical for bridging gaps between scientific need and technology capability: Some years ago, an exhibitor at Neuroscience told me that talking with the scientists there was difficult because they weren’t skilled at communicating their requirements.

Technology competence is also critical for development of instruments that will enable effective treatment for the more than one billion people worldwide that the World Health Organization says are affected by devastating brain disorders.

Indeed, it may not be a stretch to say that technology competence among neuroscientists is necessary for the future of neuroscience.

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