By Mark Dwortzan
Assistant Professor Xue Han (BME) was among a select group of leading neuroscientists invited to the White House on April 2 to hear President Barack Obama announce $100 million initial funding for a research initiative that seeks to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.
Modeled after the Human Genome Project, which mapped the human genome and opened the door to personalized medicine, The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will accelerate development and application of new technologies to visualize brain activity and pinpoint how this activity is linked to behavior and to brain disorders. These technologies could shed light on how we think, learn and remember, and lead to new treatments, cures or preventative measures for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.
“Attending this event was a tremendous honor, and it’s very exciting that the President cares about brain research,” said Han, whose lab develops novel neurotechnologies that allow researchers to control and observe brain activities—an important element in mapping neural circuits in the brain. “I think this initiative will play a key role in boosting the research effort on mapping the brain.”
Han develops and applies high-precision genetic, molecular, optical and electrical tools and other nanotechnologies to study neural circuits in the brain. By using light to momentarily activate or silence individual brain cells, she and her research team seek to identify connections between neural circuit dynamics and behavioral phenomena such as movement, attention, memory and decision-making. Establishing such connections could improve our understanding of cognitive functioning and lead to new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder and other neurological diseases.
For her trailblazing research, Han has received a 2012 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award, and was recognized as a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, Sloan Research Fellow and Peter Paul Fellow.
In his remarks, Obama highlighted the BRAIN Initiative as one of his administration’s “Grand Challenges”—ambitious but achievable goals that require advances in science and technology to accomplish—and called on companies, research universities and other organizations to support the effort. The Initiative’s initial $100 million will fund projects through the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation for the 2014 fiscal year.
For Han, the impact of the new federal funding is twofold.
“It goes beyond neuroscience, I think,” she said. “It also boosts the image of science and engineering in the perception of general public, in particular at this time of sequestration.”