A linked-up look at brain activity

Hundreds of millions of dollars are to be spent on brain research in the US


What goes on between our ears? Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama announced a major new US initiative to find out. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (Brain) Initiative will invest in technologies and research to look at brain activity, including real-time analysis of complex neural circuits and interactions of cells.

But will the public- and private-funded project, which is already outlining investment on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, really give new insight into how our brains work and point to new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders?

As it stands, the goals of the initiative are not well defined, says neuroscientist Dr Kevin Mitchell from Trinity College Dublin, but he believes the timing is right for initiatives such as Brain and the Human Brain Project in Europe, which is looking to reconstruct the brain using supercomputer-based models and simulations.

“[We want to] understand how biochemical interactions at the level of molecules and cells give rise to patterns of electrical activity in neural microcircuits and larger brain systems, which ultimately drive behaviour on a moment-to-moment basis and lead to the emergence of the mind,” says Mitchell, who is not involved in the initiatives but will be looking with interest at the outputs. “These are the big questions in neuroscience and they will require concerted efforts to answer. And while some researchers worry that the projects will suck resources away from more traditional, small-scale science, I feel it is the right time for a concerted effort on this scale.”