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BU Brain Researchers among Those Invited to White House

On hand as Obama announces expansion of BRAIN Initiative

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BU’s Gloria Waters, Michael Hasselmo, and Timothy Gardner were among the academic, industry, and philanthropic leaders invited to the White House yesterday for a conference announcing stepped-up efforts to advance the president’s ambitious BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. Waters, University vice president and associate provost for research, Hasselmo, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of BU’s new Center for Systems Neuroscience, and Gardner, a CAS assistant professor of biology and a College of Engineering assistant professor of biomedical engineering, were invited to the conference in recognition of BU’s commitment to the initiative.

“Last year I launched the BRAIN Initiative to help unlock the mysteries of the brain, to improve our treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism, and to deepen our understanding of how we think, learn, and remember,” Obama said. “I’m pleased to announce new steps that my administration is taking to support this critical research, and I’m heartened so see so many private, philanthropic, and academic institutions joining this effort.”

Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, which began as a $100 million project, aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injury. At yesterday’s event, the White House announced an additional $300 million in support of the initiative, including $46 million in new National Institutes of Health grant awards, $30 million in research and development investments from GE, Google, GlaxoSmith Kline, and other companies, and $240 million in research efforts by major foundations, patient advocacy organizations, and universities, including BU. Brain researchers say the initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function.

“Our faculty are carrying out cutting-edge research in neuroscience, and we’re delighted to have our efforts in this area recognized,” Waters says. “Technologies for understanding the brain have advanced tremendously in the past decade, and we are hopeful that this work will lead to a better understanding of brain function, and ultimately, treatment for a wide range of brain disorders.”

In connection with the White House event, yesterday the NIH separately announced its initial $46 million in support of the BRAIN Initiative. Gardner, who records the neural activity of songbirds and was recently awarded a BU Innovation Career Development Professorship, is among the grant recipients. He was awarded nearly $1.8 million to develop a new technology for neural recording and stimulation based on dense bundles of ultrasmall fibers that increase the number of electrical channels while simultaneously minimizing tissue damage. A third of his grant will fund a collaborative project at the University of Texas, Dallas.

The NIH announced funding for 58 projects; the majority of them will focus on developing transformative technologies that will accelerate fundamental neuroscience research.

BU demonstrated its support for the BRAIN Initiative in 2014 by allocating $140 million for the creation of the Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering (CILSE), which will bring together scientists and engineers from across the University for collaborative, interdisciplinary research in neuroscience and biological design.

CILSE will house the Center for Systems Neuroscience, launched this summer, and the new Center for Sensory Communication and Neuroengineering Technology, comprising neuroscientists who study communication systems, among them hearing, speech, language, vision, and other senses, as well as mathematicians studying neural coding and sensory physiologists who are developing innovative technologies. It will be directed by Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, and will enhance technology development as well as work in areas such as neural prosthetics and brain computer interfaces. The University has committed an additional $4 million over five years to the launching of these neuroscience centers.

Ground will be broken at 610 Commonwealth Avenue in late spring or early summer 2015 for the state-of-the-art, nine-story CILSE building, which will cover 170,000 square feet and support about 20 faculty and some 400 students and staff. One of its core resources will be a cognitive neuroimaging facility, with a 3 Tesla fMRI scanner, a fundamental tool for studying the brain’s trillions of neural connections and how they relate to human behavior.

BU boasts one of the nation’s largest clusters of researchers in the emerging field of systems neuroscience, a field that examines the relation between molecular and cellular approaches to understanding brain structure and function, as well as the study of high-level mental functions such as language and memory.

“Consistent with the goals of the BRAIN Initiative,” Hasselmo says, “the goal of systems neuroscience at BU is to develop theories of how the brain functions based on data from recordings of different brain regions, using cutting-edge neurotechnology for measurement and testing of brain activity.”

Another leading BU neuroscientist, Xue Han, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering, was among a group of neuroscientists invited to the White House in April 2013 for Obama’s initial announcement of the BRAIN Initiative.

Han is a pioneer in the young field of optogenetics, in which scientists reengineer nerve cells, or neurons, to respond to light, using molecules called opsins. The technique is now widely used to study brain activity, and she is using it to investigate Parkinson’s disease.

The White House also announced yesterday that the BRAIN Initiative is expanding to include five federal agencies, as the Food and Drug Administration and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity join the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. All of the participating agencies are committing to engage in BRAIN Initiative–related work in fiscal year 2015.

“How do the billions of cells in our brain control our thoughts, feelings, and  movements? That’s ultimately what the BRAIN Initiative is about,” said Thomas R. Insel (CAS’72, MED’74), director of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, who spoke at the White House yesterday. “Understanding this will greatly help us meet the rising challenges that brain disorders pose for the future health of the nation.”

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