“Golden Age” of Neurobiology on the Horizon, Says Leiter Lecturer

A brain with its ridges highlighted in blueThe quest to unlock the mysteries of the human brain extends back centuries, from Aristotle, who believed the brain was a secondary cooling mechanism for the heart, to Italian scientist Camillo Golgi, whose pioneering discovery in 1873 of a cell-staining technique allowed him to view the connections among brain cells for the first time.

The deep intricate puzzle that is the human brain will be explored in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (BRAIN), which aims to revolutionize our understanding of the brain.

Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, one of the leading scientists instrumental in shaping that effort, recently delivered the 2014 Joseph Leiter NLM/Medical Library Association Lecture. His talk, “The BRAIN Initiative: Connecting the Dots,” provided perspective on the initiative; what we can expect in the coming decade; and the needs regarding data and data sharing.

The BRAIN Initiative, announced at the White House last year, is a multi-agency effort with the National Institutes of Health in a leading role. Sejnowski, a member of the committee advising NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, delivered his talk just one week after Collins accepted the committee’s scientific vision “to map the circuits of the brain, measure the fluctuating patterns of electrical and chemical activity flowing within those circuits, and understand how their interplay creates our unique cognitive and behavioral capabilities.”

Terrence Sejnowski, Ph.D.

Dr. Terrence Sejnowski speaks on the uniqueness of the human brain. (Photo by Lisa Helfert.)

“This was a humbling experience for me personally because there were so many issues we struggled with,” noted Sejnowski. “I learned an enormous amount about other areas of neuroscience and about my colleagues because they had their own views.”

The brain, he said, is an amazing machine that’s incredibly efficient. “Your brain has more computational power than all of the Internet and computers put together,” he explained. “But what makes it really remarkable is not so much how powerful it is, but the fact that it works on roughly 20 watts of power.”

The BRAIN Initiative will gather massive amounts of data focusing on neural circuits, the part of the brain we know the least about, and then “create a map of the human brain and record enough neurons to see how they cooperate with each other” so that researchers can begin to understand how an individual brain works.

Sejnowski illustrated his remarks with several dramatic videos, including one that graphically detailed the workings of a single hippocampus cell. “That’s never been seen by anyone until we reconstructed it,” he said.

He also showed photos of zebrafish, used in research labs. Because they are transparent at birth, researchers can observe how the zebrafish’s brain develops. Sejnowski’s photos showed neurons switching on and off when stimulated by the zebrafish’s thought processes.

“The human brain was designed to interact with the world,” said Sejnowski. How do we study that interaction? How do we decode what we see when a zebrafish flashes neurons on and off? How do we peer into the brain and see how neurons are developing?

According to Sejnowski, the future of neuro research lies with big data analysis and sensor technology that will allow electronic probing of the brain. To map the brain’s circuits, researchers need to accumulate large datasets and save them in a common format for open access by the entire scientific community access. Larger amounts of data will lead to better analysis of the brain’s complexities. To build these mega-databases, data sharing is needed, an idea that sometimes runs counter to practice in the scientific community.

“We’ve got to change that culture,’ Sejnowski said. “No single lab or researcher can do all the work that needs to be done to build such databases. We need to be able to create a platform where it’s easy to download and share your data with others.”

Such data sharing and advanced tools will lead to a “golden age of neuroscience,” Sejnowski predicted.

”Every single type of data that neuroscientists collect ranging from electrical and chemical activity; how things are connected; genetic data; behavioral data, all of those are very different in terms of the demands they make in terms of how you are going curate them and make them available,” he said.

Taking the long view, Sejnowski said the golden age of neurotechnology will be comparable to other historic breakthroughs, like putting a man on the moon in the 1960s, or the biotech advances in the War on Cancer of the 1970s, and the vast genomic strides emanating from the Human Genome Project.

“We need to inspire a generation of students to go into neuroscience to understand what is happening in our brains when we make decisions. We are only going to be able to do that if we can marshal the best we have in the US. And I think that’s what NIH has done with the BRAIN Initiative,” Sejnowski concluded.

Editor’s Note: The Joseph Leiter NLM/MLA Lecture was established in 1983 to stimulate intellectual liaison between the MLA and the NLM. Leiter was a major contributor in cancer research at the National Cancer Institute and a leader at NLM as a champion of medical librarians and an informatics pioneer. He served as NLM Associate Director for Library Operations from 1965 to 1983.

By Thomas Conuel, NLM in Focus Writer