The most mysterious organ

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2013

"[W]e propose the dynamical mapping of the . . . patterns and sequences of neuronal firing by all neurons," a group of scientists wrote in the journal Neuron last year, in an article considered to be a roadmap for the BRAIN Initiative. "Correlating this firing activity with both the connectivity of the circuit and its functional or behavior output could enable the understanding of neuronal codes and their regulation of behavior and mental states."

While there are several existing technologies (such as the functional MRI) that allow scientists to view whole-brain activity patterns, it has been significantly more challenging to record every electrical spike from every neuron, and then follow those spikes along shifting microcircuits. Advances in optical imaging and nanoprobe sensing allow for much sharper (and less invasive) recording of such activity. Scientists are currently working on wireless technology that would be able to directly monitor neural spikes, as well as ways to use synthetic DNA as a data-storage mechanism. A major thrust of the BRAIN Initiative will be to further develop these tools.

In their Neuron article, the authors envision progressing from the reconstruction of neural activity within small, simple circuits (like those of worms) to being able to record the activity within more complex systems such as those of fruit flies, zebrafish, or mice. The 15-year goal is to understand the neuronal activity of the neocortex (top layer) of an awake mouse, and then to move on to primates and eventually humans. In other words, in contrast with the Human Genome Project (which ultimately achieved its tangible aim of identifying and mapping a complete set of human genetic information), this initiative is moving more slowly toward less bombastic goals.

LOCAL LABS

We have no major brain institute here in Maine; local researchers doubt they'll see direct BRAIN Initiative funding in their labs. However, megaprojects like this one are encouraging for neuroscientists everywhere, who are buoyed by any increased attention to their area of study and may well benefit, if only tangentially, from the initiative.

For example, mouse models created at and distributed by the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor are being used at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which is in the second year of a decade-long endeavor to understand our neural code: "how brain activity leads to perception, decision making, and ultimately action." The models allow researchers to manipulate neurons using light, or to view neurons in different colors, making for "elegant pictures" of the brain, according to Michael Sasner, associate director of bioinformatics and model development at Jackson Labs.

"The people we provide with these tools are going to have a lot more resources to make things happen," Sasner says. "Having a pot of money around the development of tools is really exciting."

Other brain-related research taking place in Maine includes:

• University of New England professor of pharmacology David Mokler is "trying to figure out a little more about how the brain works in terms of aggression," particularly the ways in which one can induce aggression in animals by socially isolating them, and what parts of the brain are involved in aggressive tendencies. Mokler is also working with a team of neuroscientists based in Boston, New Hampshire, and Maine to study the effect of malnutrition on the brain. Early findings suggest a correlation between malnutrition and attention problems or learning difficulties.

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