Ten Cool Things the White House’s BRAIN Initiative Is Funding

If you’ve been paying attention, surely you’ve heard and seen enough to know the BRAIN Initiative is big and powerful. Though it’s being billed, in a sense, as the next Human Genome Project, there’s way more money behind it: The HGP gave away just $27.8 million in its first year, and the BRAIN Initiative already has nearly double that.

And the players! We wrote recently about how the Simons Foundation was joining forces with the initiative, which is a big deal given the deep pockets of that funder. But that's just the tip of a growing iceberg made up of public and private resources. 

The list of players now includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the universities of Utah, Pittsburgh, Texas, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon, as well as Boston University. Fifty companies in Oregon and Washington are getting into the game, along with the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the University of Washington, and Oregon Health & Science University. Also along for the ride: General Electric, Google, andGlaxoSmithKline.

We wouldn't be surprised if a few more foundations joined the mix in coming months. I mean, really, what brain funder would want to be left out of this high-powered enterprise?

But just what are researchers doing with the money? What specific projects is this colossal pile of cash funding? Well, we’re glad you asked. Here's an interesting sampling of some cool work being funded:

  •  At Caltech, a team will put fruit flies on treadmills, send out a variety of sounds and smells, and measure the activities of their neurons in the meantime.
  • At Princeton, thousands of volunteers playing an online game called Eyewire will help map how light is transformed into nerve signals.
  • At the Salk Institute, scientists will flick genes on and off in the mouse frontal cortex is order to understand the circuits that contribute to higher reasoning.
  • In a different Caltech lab, rodents, monkeys, and humans will submit to inner-brain ultrasound waves, in order to assess behavior modification.
  • At UCLA, advanced visualization technology will help catalog the diversity of cell types present within the developing human brain.
  • At Duke, new technology will enable researchers to capture the electromagnetic signals broadcast by neurons.
  • At the University of Minnesota, researchers will use small magnets to create a handheld, portable system with MRI capabilities.
  • At West Virginia University, engineers will make a wearable PET scanner that can show the brain movement that takes place when a subject does something ordinary, like walking the dog.

Meanwhile, researchers at other centers will be engaged in developing new lasers, light-emitting probes, and infrared chemical tags to help initiate and track neuronal activity in the brain.

It’s overwhelming—such a wide range of different research projects incorporating so many different technologies. But if there’s a common thread that can be drawn among many of the BRAIN Initiative projects, it’s imaging.

Being able to look inside the brain has, in recent years, enabled huge leaps forward in our understanding of what’s going on in there, and it’s pretty clear the White House believes we’re poised to capitalize on this situation in a very major way.