The US BRAIN initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, which began under the Obama administration in 2013 – is likely to continue to receive funding under the new Trump administration, Edmund Talley from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told a neurotechnologies plenary session at SPIE Photonics West on 29 January.
Talley said the initiative had ‘strong bipartisan support’ in Washington, with the NIH alone granted an anticipated $3.2 billion up until 2026. 'We really have some money to spend and we're looking for people to spend it with,' Talley told the audience at Photonics West.
The BRAIN initiative is made up of federal and non-federal partners, of which the NIH is only one, and includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).
Talley described the NIH neurotechnologies work as aiming for a ‘tool-driven revolution’ in order to further knowledge about the brain.
Rafael Yuste at Columbia University, and one of the Chairs of the session, gave examples of some of these tools including connectomics – the study of connectomes, which are maps of neural connections – nanofabrication and optical imaging. He said that this is the kind of technology that should be ‘built together by the community, for the community’.
Yuste spoke about using calcium imaging to see every spike from every neuron in the nervous system of Hydra vulgaris, a freshwater polyp and an extremely simple organism.
He said these kinds of techniques open up the potential to image networks of neurons rather than just individual neurons firing, something he likened to being able to view portions of pictures showing on a TV screen, rather than just individual pixels.
Imaging the entire nervous system of H. vulgaris is like viewing the whole TV screen but, Yuste said, the picture is still unclear because of the current lack of knowledge about what the images show.
One of the tools for improving knowledge about neural circuits is a spatial light modulator (SLM), which shapes light via holographic projection. Scientists using microscopes with built-in SLMs can manipulate neural circuits and then watch the results.
There are other techniques like two-photon microscopy and now three-photon microscopy, allowing researchers to view neurons deep inside tissue. Chris Xu from Cornell University spoke about three-photon microscopy during the session.
Maria Angela Franceschini at the Athinoula A Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, an institute in Boston, USA, detailed work on building the first commercially available frequency-domain near-infrared tissue oximeter (FDNIRS) integrated with diffusion correlation spectroscopy (DCS).
The FDNIRS-DCS instrument can monitor cerebral oxygen metabolism in infants using non-invasive optical techniques. Parisa Farzam from the Martinos Center Optics Division won the 2017 Translational Research Award at Photonics West for her work using the system to monitor intracranial pressure in patients with brain injuries, data that would otherwise be gathered by inserting a pressure sensor into the brain.
Franceschini's team is also using the system as part of an ongoing study into malnutrition in children in Africa, with trials monitoring children in seven African villages.
Yuste said that the aim for the neuroscience community is to map 50,000 neurons in the next five years, one million neurons in 10 years, and the entire human brain in the next 15 years.
He also called for greater ethical consideration and guidelines for neuroscience because of the advances being made in neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence which, he said, can be used to further science and human health, but also to manipulate people's emotions and actions.