Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku once called the human brain “the most complicated object in the known universe.” The problem is, even though we know that the brain is complex, we really don’t know all that much about it. Oh, sure, we know what the brain looks like, but much of how it really functions remains a mystery.
That void in our scientific knowledge comes with a cost. Lack of understanding regarding how the brain works – and how to treat it when it isn’t working properly – has an economic impact that exceeds $1 trillion in the U.S. every year. Alzheimer’s disease alone will cost the American society $214 billion in direct medical expenses in 2014, a number that is expected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That doesn’t even include lost economic opportunities associated with the disease.
Closing the gap in our knowledge and understanding of the brain is the focus of the BRAIN Initiative, which was announced by President Obama in 2013. Short for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies,” the BRAIN Initiative aims to accelerate the advances in technology that will help researchers to study the brain, understand how it functions, learn how those functions relate to human behavior, and comprehend the mechanisms of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and epilepsy. The Initiative was launched with $100 million in funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as hundreds of millions in additional investments from numerous foundations.
Answering the questions posed by the BRAIN Initiative requires the invention of technologies that do not yet exist. That won’t be possible without the participation of engineers from across a wide range of disciplines, says Dr. Bin He, IEEE Fellow and the chair of this month’s IEEE EMBS BRAIN Grand Challenges Conference, which will be held 13 -14 November in Washington, D.C.
Engineering the Brain
To date neuroscientists have been the most active participants in the BRAIN Challenge, but they can’t do the work alone. “Engineers, particularly IEEE members, should play an important role in this national initiative to develop and advance neurotechnology,” He said. Members of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society in particular, he points out, are already international leaders in neurotechnology. Getting them together with neuroscientists and representatives from the federal government will help move things further forward.
“We’re fortunate that we’ll have a lot of federal officials attending the conference,” He said. “The conference will provide an opportunity to hear engineers and view what they are already doing in neurotechnology.”
According to He, “there are many, many things engineers are doing which are very important parts of this BRAIN Initiative.” One clear way to illustrate this is the more than 160 posters that will be presented at the conference. Attendees, He said, “can look at the many poster presentations and get a feel as to what kind of brain research engineers are doing, including developing neural sensors, neural circuits, neural control algorithms and much more.”
Similarly, the federal government would like to use the BRAIN Initiative to engage more people to direct their work in the direction of brain research. “Paradigm-shifting technologies come from taking people who have engineering, mathematical and physics backgrounds who haven’t applied it to neuroscience before and getting them to think about these problems in ways the traditional communities haven’t,” said Kip Ludwig, program director for neural engineering at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Current brain research, Ludwig explained, has been limited by the state of technology. “There’s a lot we don’t understand about the brain, and a lot of experiments we have wanted to conduct for years, but there literally was not the technology available to conduct those experiments,” he said. Technology currently allows researchers to study only a tiny fraction of the 100 billion neurons on the human brain, and even that is only possible by using electrodes that perturb the brain and can cause unanticipated changes. “You can still learn a lot,” Ludwig said, “but you can’t learn everything you want to by any stretch of the imagination.” It hasn’t been enough to determine how the brain creates electrical signals and what role they play in either health or – more importantly – disease. “We need to be able to identify the circuits in the disease pathology that aren’t working well, why they’re not working well, and understand how electrical stimulation or a drug can correct that abnormality.”
That’s just starting to change following advances in areas such as optogenetic stimulation and two-photon microscopy. “Things are starting to be possible now,” Ludwig said. “We’re trying to create this toolset that will enable experiments that everybody’s always wanted to do and are critical for understanding the brain but we just haven’t had the ability to measure them.”
It Takes a Community
Solving the challenges of the BRAIN Initiative will require a large number of people with a large number of skills. “This is dozens of different areas of expertise we’re talking about,” Ludwig said. He said that’s the advantage of federally funded research: it’s a collective, collaborative effort that can exist outside of corporate requirements for short-term goals. “Everyone realizes that this is going to be the engine that drives medical device advances and the economy. What we want to do is to work with industries and academia to understand what they’re already doing in this area, and then to understand what can be done in a pre-competitive space to make it more community driven.” That, he said, will allow everyone to take advantage of the work being done today in the decades to come.
The IEEE EMBS BRAIN Grand Challenges Conference is just one step along the way to solving these problems. Dr. He said IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering will publish a special issue devoted to the conference in 2015, and he expects an ongoing dialogue related to the BRAIN Initiative. Meanwhile, Ludwig suggests that any engineers interested in learning more or in participating in the BRAIN Initiative visit their website and contact the NIH.
Although much of this work is being done by the top minds in various fields, Dr. He said he is particularly excited about the work being done by the next generation of engineers, many of whom entered the conference’s Young Investigator Awards Competition. “We hope to guide them and provide more opportunities for them to play a bigger role in the Initiative,” he said.
John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today’s Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.