terrence_j_sejnowski's picture
Computational Neuroscientist; Francis Crick Professor, the Salk Institute; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Co-author (with Patricia Churchland), The Computational Brain
The State Of The Brain

The big news on April 2, 2013 was the announcement of the BRAIN Initiative from the White House, whose goal is to develop innovative neurotechnology for understanding brain function. Grand challenges like this one happen once every few decades, including the announcement in 1961 of the Apollo Program to land a man on the moon, the War on Cancer in 1971, and the Human Genome Project in 1990. These were ten to fifteen year national efforts that brought together the best and the brightest to attack a problem that could only be solved on a national scale.

Why the brain? Brains are the most complex devices in the known universe and up until now our attempts to understand how brains work have fallen short. It will take a major international effort to crack the neural code. Europe weighed in earlier with the Human Brain Project and Japan later announced a Brain/MINDS project to develop a transgenic nonhuman primate model. China is also planning an ambitious brain project.

Brain disorders are common and devastating. Autism, schizophrenia, and depression destroy personal lives and create an enormous economic burden on society. The annual cost of maintaining patients in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder with no known cure, is $200 billion and climbing as our population ages. Unlike heart diseases and cancers that lead to rapid death, patients can live for decades with brain disorders. The best efforts of drug companies to develop new treatments have failed. If we don’t find a better way to treat broken brains now our children will bear a terrible burden.

A second motivation for reaching a better understanding of brains is to avert a catastrophic collapse of civilization, which is happening in the Middle East. The Internet has made it possible for terrorist groups to proliferate, and modern science has created weapons that pose existential threats ranging from nuclear weapons to genetic recombination. The most versatile weapon delivery system is the human. We need to better understand what happens in the brain of a suicidal terrorist planning to maximize destruction.

These motivations to understand the brain are based on brains behaving badly, but the ultimate scientific goal is to discover the basic principles of normal brain function. Richard Feynman once wrote: "What I cannot create, I do not understand." That is, if you can’t prove something yourself you don’t really understand it. One way to prove something is to build a device based on what you understand and see if it works. Once we have truly uncovered the principles of how the brain works we should be able to build devices with similar capabilities. This will have a profound impact on every aspect of society and the rise of artificial intelligence based on machine learning is a harbinger. Our brain is the paramount learning machine.

These are the goals of the BRAIN Initiative, but its impact may be quite different from our expectations. The goal of the Apollo Project was to send a man to the moon. Mission accomplished, but if the moon was so important why have we not gone back there? In contrast, the impact of building the technologies needed to reach the moon has been far reaching: A thriving satellite industry and advances in digital communications, microelectronics, and materials science, as well as a revamping of the curriculum in science and engineering. The War on Cancer is still being fought, but the invention of recombinant DNA technology allowed us to manipulate the genome and created the biotechnology industry. The goal of the Human Genome Project was to cure human diseases, which we now know are not easily deciphered by reading the base pairs, but the sequencing of the human genome has transformed biology and created a genomic industry that is making possible personalized, precision medicine.

The impact of the BRAIN Initiative will be the creation of neurotechnologies that match the complexity of the brain. Genetic studies have uncovered hundreds of genes that contribute to brain disorders. Drugs have not been as effective in treating brain disorders as they have for heart diseases because of the diversity of cell types in the brain and complexity of the signaling pathways. The development of new neurotechnologies will create tools that are more precisely targeted at the sources of brain disorders. Tools from molecular genetics and optogenetics are already giving us an unprecedented ability to manipulate neurons and more powerful tools are on the way from the BRAIN Initiative.

An important lesson from the history of national grand challenges is that there is no better way to invest in the future than focusing the best and brightest minds on an important problem and building the infrastructure needed to solve the problem.